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

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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.”

All 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.”

Donald Known and Donald Unknown


Donald would’ve been an easy book to get wrong.  After all, when McSweeney’s announced in early January that it would release Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott’s “high-wire allegory” on the same day as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir Known and Unknown, the message seemed clear – Rummy is about to get waterboarded.

And, some would feel, rightfully so.  To many, the lines crossed by the United States in the War on Terror were not fine but coarse, and although the former administration has moved on, the ire it incited remains.  But rather than exploiting this obvious emotional peg, Martin and Elliott take the high road.  Donald is a smart, subtle story that provides new insight into a man at the center of it all.

The plot is roughly what you’d expect.  After a day of research and an evening out with friends, Donald, a former senior government official, is abducted from his study while his wife is upstairs. A team of masked gunmen hood, bind, and drug Donald, who later wakes up in a cell where he is subjected to oblique interrogations.  This routine is repeated a few more times, as Donald is shuffled through a disorienting system of temporary prisons.  But if bloodthirsty Rumsfeld-haters are hoping for a good killing here, they’ll be disappointed.  Yes, Donald gets a bit roughed up. But he’s never waterboarded and you won’t hear him beg for mercy.  This isn’t a literary flogging.

Critics and columnists alike have knocked Known and Unknown for the gaps it reveals in Rumsfeld’s character.  In a recent column, Maureen Dowd said that the memoir, “is like a living, breathing version of the man himself: very thorough, highly analytical, and virtually absent any credible self-criticism.”  The Times’s reviewer Michiko Kakutani added, “It is a book that suffers from many of the same flaws that led the administration into what George Packer of The New Yorker has called ‘a needlessly deadly’ undertaking — that is, cherry-picked data, unexamined assumptions and an unwillingness to re-examine past decisions.”  Martin and Elliott somehow anticipated those gaps, and they fill them in with Donald.  In the opening scene of the novel, a young man and woman confront Donald in a library over his testimony in a commission’s report.  “There are omissions in your account,” he says. “We’re looking to set baselines for productive dialogue.”

In the end, productive dialogue with Donald is impossible.  But it’s hard not to root for the guy a little when he’s abducted.  His pluck and tougher-than-thou ethos, his old-school self-reliance, and the tenderness with which he expresses his love and concern for his wife almost render him sympathetic.  But these impressions fade as Donald’s true character inexorably emerges over the course of the novel.

His blind ambition and arrogance are highlighted when he considers overtaking his captors by force, mano a mano.  Donald can’t see that the wrestling instincts of his youth now inhabit the 78-year-old frame of a retired bureaucrat.   His love for his wife morphs into a kind of grotesque solipsism as he ultimately uses her voice to reminisce about their relationship in his prison scribbling.  The fact of his doing this is not that bothersome.  What’s disturbing here is the way he does it.

The bottom line is I never would have married anyone until he married someone other than me. I’m sure he would have liked to live the bachelor’s life for a few more years. But he thought: Gee, I’m not going to wake up someday and say why didn’t you act faster or sooner. So it was more of an intellectual decision, not knowing that I would have waited. So the fact that we were engaged was just a big surprise to everyone. It’s not that there wasn’t passion. Of course there was. But it was always a lifelong partnership.

One night, late in his captivity, the questioning young man from the opening scene in the library returns.  He stands outside Donald’s cell, presumably waiting for that productive dialogue to begin.  Here, what initially appeared to be self-reliance, is revealed to be mean self-righteousness.  Donald barks, “These people are trained to lie.  They’re trained to say they were tortured. Their training manual says so. We learned a great deal about them. Their methods. Their skill sets. We’ve learned a great deal through this process which has been humane.”  The subtext here is clear –“Hey, don’t look at me; these people got what they deserved.”

At a tight 110 pages, Donald is written in gorgeous prose and makes for a hypnotic read in one sitting.  As Donald dines with his wife and another couple, their champagne, “looks like ice washed in gold, with perfect beads of bubbles skipping to the surface.”  When Donald is abducted, the bodies around him smell, “like leeks and batteries.”  “Motes of sunlight dance in his new cell,” when Donald is returned to the general population after a stint in solitary.

The elegant writing coupled with Martin and Elliott’s emotional restraint allows for Donald’s ultimate point to stand in high-relief.  When the person chained in darkness is dragged into the light in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, his eyes eventually adjust and a new reality emerges.  Perhaps because he is too confident in his own perception of things or simply a relic of a simpler time, Martin and Elliott’s Donald is incapable of such adjustment.  He is blinded by the realities of the world in which he finds himself.