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The Craftsman: E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World

By posted at 6:00 am on April 18, 2011 1

March of this year was bookended by two monster releases in fiction.  On the front end, wunderkind Téa Obreht debuted with The Tiger’s Wife and earned near universal acclaim. Then, at the end of the month, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the highly anticipated final act of his too short career, appeared on scattered bookshelves and shipped from Amazon roughly two weeks ahead of Little Brown’s intended release date.  But between these two, and perhaps a bit lost beneath the din they created, an American master quietly released a new collection of short stories.

In the Winter 1986 issue of The Paris Review, before Obreht could write and before Wallace had published his first novel, that American master, E. L. Doctorow, sat down with George Plimpton for the quarterly’s “The Art of Fiction” interview series.  For the first time in the series’ history, the interview was conducted in public at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and Doctorow drew an audience of about 500 according to the Review.

After a brief introduction, Plimpton and Doctorow sat across from one another, and Plimpton, who found Doctorow “retiring,” began. “You once told me that the most difficult thing for a writer to write was a simple household note to someone coming to collect the laundry, or instructions to a cook,” he said.  At this, Doctorow launched into an anecdote about a time when one of his daughters came downstairs before school and asked for an absence note.  “So I wrote down the date and I started, Dear Mrs. So-and-so, my daughter Caroline . . . and then I thought, No, that’s not right, obviously it’s my daughter Caroline. I tore that sheet off, and started again.”  Soon, Doctorow found himself knee-deep in drafts, panicking, while his daughter’s bus driver leaned on the horn outside.  “Writing is immensely difficult,” he told Plimpton at the end of the anecdote, “The short forms especially.”

coverAll the Time in the World is proof of this.  It is a collection of twelve stories, six plucked from Doctorow’s two previous collections, Lives of the Poets and Sweet Land Stories, and six that ran in magazines and journals like The New Yorker and The Kenyon Review. While we often picture our most talented writers dripping with literary genius, their divine prose flowing effortlessly from the ether to the page, each of the dozen short stories gathered here evinces the work of a craftsman who has intently chiseled out his work.

Up close, the stories aren’t united by any single narrative element or plot device.  As Doctorow admits in the preface, “there is no Winesburg here to be mined for its humanity.”  Viewed this way, the collection is a testament to Doctorow’s breadth as a writer, which he seems to relish.  “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia,” he told Plimpton.  In All the Time in the World, Doctorow writes about a young woman who gets knocked about from Memphis to Vegas by a series of abusive husbands and lovers in “Jolene: A Life.”  In “A House on the Plains,” he tells the story of a mother and son from Chicago who coldly turn to fraud and violence as a way to survive the lean years of (what appears to be) the 1930s.  “Assimilation” features a young “mestizo” in a place like present day Little Odessa who gets tangled up in a marriage to a woman with ties to the Russian mob.

But stepping back from the collection, a common thread emerges.  The stories are linked through their protagonists, each of whom seems to be struggling within what Doctorow calls a “contest with the prevailing world.”   To take this further, the end zone in that contest seems to have something to do with the idea of home.  In addition to the stories mentioned above, there are several others that echo with this notion. “Wakefield,” the collection’s opening story, is Doctorow’s take on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story by the same name about a man who “absented himself for a long time from his wife.”  Here, Wakefield retreats to the atelier above his garage for a year and subjects his wife and family to some peculiar test of authenticity, partly, it seems, to see if the mice play while the cat is away.  “Edgemont Drive” features a mysterious man who returns to the home of his childhood, ingratiates himself to the woman of the house, and never leaves.

The best story of the collection is “Walter John Harmon,” a first-person account of life inside a cult reminiscent of the Branch Davidians.  The unnamed narrator describes how he came to follow Walter John Harmon, Doctorow’s David Koresh, and provides the logic behind offering Harmon not only his money, but also his wife, Betty, for the good of the community.  Viewing the cult through the eyes of one of its devout members is a deeply unsettling experience.  On the one hand, you’re disturbed by the perversion of religion and exploitation of faith.  On the other, you sympathize with the narrator, seeing firsthand how such a belief system might make sense out of the world in which we live.

“Walter John Harmon” also features some of the most beautiful writing in the collection.  Here, Doctorow writes about the purported apotheosis of Harmon, in a gas and oil fire started at a Getty station during a tornado.

As he stood by the pool of fire, the garage doors first, and then the roof and then the collapsed walls, were lifted and spun into the black funnel.  Only Walter John Harmon stood where he stood, and then was slowly raised in his standing and turned slowly in his turning, calmly and silently, his arms stretched wide in the black shrieking, with the things of our lives whirling in the whirlwind above him – car fenders and machines from the Laundromat, hats and empty coats and trousers, tables, mattresses, plates and knives and forks, TV sets and computers, all malignantly alive in the black howling.  And then a child flew into Walter John Harmon’s left arm and another fell into his right arm, and he held them steadfast and was lowered to the ground where he had stood.  And then the dreaded wind that takes all breath away was gone, having blown itself to bits.

Despite the fact that the stories included in All the Time in the World are well-paced, thoughtful, and engaging, their endings often fall short of the promise Doctorow lays out in the narrative. Some end with a deafening thud, as though Doctorow, still haunted by his daughter’s bus driver honking outside that day, simply scribbled something off to get the piece out the door. At others, they’re positively contrived. (The ending of “Assimilation,” in particular, is especially cringe-worthy.) But Doctorow isn’t really writing to please the critics. As he told Plimpton, “But no matter what kind of reaction the book receives, whether people like the book or don’t like it, nothing comes up to the experience of writing the book. That’s what drives you back.”

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One Response to “The Craftsman: E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World”

  1. Ananda Wolf
    at 10:50 pm on April 18, 2011

    During much of my early writing life I read scores of books on the craft; and I took good (and ample) notes, which eventually matured into a 400-page compendium of quotes on the various elements of fiction—what makes our craft work.

    Perhaps you may find it helpful.

    If you are interested you can find it here, either to read or download as a pdf file: http://anandawolf.com/essays/on-craft/the-elements-of-fiction.

    Metta,

    Ananda Wolf

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