Miniatures on a Broad Canvas
At the National Book Awards ceremony in New York City on November 2, E.L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On that night he joined a rarefied posse of past recipients that includes Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, Stephen King, Tom Wolfe, John Ashbery, and Elmore Leonard, among others. The award formalized something legions of readers have known for more than half a century: E.L. Doctorow is a national treasure.
While I wouldn’t presume to single out one of Doctorow’s dozen novels or story collections as his “best” book, I do think it is fair to say that, so far, his best known and best loved work is the novel Ragtime. And I would argue that this has also been his most influential book, the one that has done more than all the others to change the way American authors approach the writing of novels.
Ragtime, like so much of Doctorow’s fiction, is pinned to a particular, acutely rendered moment in American history. In other novels he has taken us back to the Wild West (Welcome to Hard Times, 1960), the Civil War (The March, 2005), post-bellum New York City (The Waterworks, 1994), the Depression (World’s Fair, 1985, winner of the National Book Award; Loon Lake, 1980; and Billy Bathgate, 1989), and the Cold War (The Book of Daniel, 1971).
In Ragtime he takes us back to the years immediately preceding the First World War, when America and much of the world lived in a state of dreamy innocence, oblivious that twinned calamities loomed. The book’s theme, as I read it, is that such innocence is an untenable luxury, then and now, and its inevitable loss is always laced with trauma, pain, and bloodshed. To heighten the trauma, Doctorow first builds a nearly pastoral world. Here is the novel’s serene opening:
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
In just four deceptively simple sentences, Doctorow has established the novel’s tone and central strategy. The key word in this passage is seemed, for it hints that this stout manse will not be able to provide the stability it promises. More subtly – and crucially – Doctorow also establishes a slippery narrative voice, which will be a key to the novel’s success. When we learn that “Father” built this house, we assume that the man’s son or daughter is narrating the story. Later references to “Grandfather” and “Mother” and “Mother’s Younger Brother” and “the Little Boy” reinforce the familial sleight of hand. But three sentences after the intimate introduction of “Father,” Doctorow switches to the impersonal third-person plural and tells us that after “the family” took possession of the house, it seemed that “their” days would be warm and fair. It is a deft shift of focus, a quiet, barely noticeable pulling back, but it gives Doctorow the freedom to have it both ways – to paint miniatures on a broad canvas. The strategy is crucial to everything that will follow.
The novel was stylistically innovative in other ways. The paragraphs are long, unbroken by quoted dialog. This allows Doctorow to immerse the reader in the seamless atmosphere of a particular place and time. In the middle of the novel’s long opening paragraph, Doctorow plays the gambit that will become the novel’s signature and the source of its enduring influence on the way many American novelists work right up to today: he starts injecting historical figures into his fictional world.
The gambit unfolds like this: “Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigors of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families. One read between the lines of the journals and gazettes. In New York City the papers were full of the shooting of the famous architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, eccentric scion of a coke and railroad fortune. Harry K. Thaw was the husband of Evelyn Nesbit, the celebrated beauty who had once been Stanford White’s mistress.” A few lines later Emma Goldman, the revolutionary, strolls onto the page. Soon after that, Harry Houdini wrecks his car, “a black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” in front of the family’s house in New Rochelle. Five pages in, and Doctorow is already off to the races.
In the course of the novel we’ll meet the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Dreiser, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and Emiliano Zapata. With one exception – a luncheon meeting between Ford and Morgan – the appearance of these historical figures feels unforced and plausible. Doctorow’s historical research is obviously prodigious, but the reader never feels that the author is emptying his notebook or showing off. The historical details, such as Houdini’s “black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” are chosen carefully and slipped into the narrative without fanfare. In other words, Doctorow’s mastery of his material and his narrative voice prevents the novel’s central conceit from sliding into mere schtick.
From Kohlhase to Kohlhaas to Coalhouse
All writing comes from other writing, and of course E.L. Doctorow was not the first writer to populate a fictional narrative with historical figures. It just seemed that way to many people when Ragtime was published, to great fanfare, in the summer of 1975.
But as Doctorow happily admitted in an interview in 1988, Ragtime sprang from a very specific source – an 1810 novella called Michael Kohlhaas by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The parallels between the two books are unmistakable. In Kleist’s novella, the title character is based on an historical figure, a 16th-century horse dealer named Hans Kohlhase, who seeks justice when he is swindled out of two horses and a servant, a campaign that wins the support of Martin Luther but eventually leads to Kohlhass’s violent death; in Doctorow’s novel, the black musician Coalhouse Walker mounts an equally fierce campaign for justice when his pristine Model T is desecrated by a company of racist firemen, a campaign that wins the support of Booker T. Washington but eventually leads to Coalhouse’s violent death.
“Kleist is a great master,” Doctorow told the interviewer. “I was first attracted to his prose, his stories, and the location of his narrative somewhere between history and fiction… Ragtime is a quite deliberate homage. You know, writers lift things from other writers all the time. I always knew I wanted to use Michael Kohlhaas in some way, but I didn’t know until my black musician was driving up the Broadview Avenue hill in his Model T Ford that the time had come to do that.”
Ragtime’s Ragged Spawn
I read Ragtime not as a conventional historical novel – that is, a novel that hangs its fictions on a scaffold of known events – but rather as a novel that makes selective use of historical figures and events to create its own plausible but imaginary past. Yes, Doctorow did his research and he includes factual renderings of numerous historical figures and events, but these are springboards for his imaginings, not the essence of his enterprise. Put another way, Doctorow is after truth, not mere facts. But as he set out to write the book he understood that a prevailing hunger for facts had put the art of conventional storytelling under extreme pressure. He explained it this way in a 2008 interview with New York magazine: “I did have a feeling that the culture of factuality was so dominating that storytelling had lost all its authority. I thought, If they want fact, I’ll give them facts that will leave their heads spinning.” And when William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of the novel, Doctorow remarked, “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
I think he’s right. Doctorow’s selective use of historical figures and events lends Ragtime its air of verisimilitude without robbing him of the freedom to imagine and distort and mythologize. It is, for a writer of fiction, the best of all possible worlds. Small wonder, then, that Doctorow’s strategy, radical in 1975, is now so commonplace that it’s impossible to keep up with the torrent of novels, short stories, and movies that owe a debt to his act of transgression.
(For an interesting take on how transgressions can become commonplace, go see the 100th-anniversary recreation of the Armory Show, currently at the New York Historical Society. Works by Duchamp, Matisse, and Gauguin that shocked America in 1913 – the precise moment when Ragtime is set – are now part of the Modernist canon, tame and acceptable.)
Colum McCann, the decorated Irish writer now living in New York, is among the many writers who have come around to Doctorow’s way of writing novels. McCann’s early fiction is loosely based on historical events but populated with fictional characters. Then in 2003 he published Dancer, a fictional telling of Rudolf Nureyev’s life. McCann’s National Book Award-winning novel from 2009, Let the Great World Spin, pivots on Philippe Petit’s mesmerizing high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Earlier this year, McCann published TransAtlantic, a triptych that fictionalizes the stories of three journeys across the ocean by actual historical figures: the aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown; the abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and the former U.S. Senator and peace envoy George Mitchell. In an interview with The Guardian, McCann explained his shift toward historical figures and events over the past decade by citing a maxim from the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “The real is as imagined as the imaginary.” It follows that the imagined is as real as the real. McCann added, “I said about 12 years ago that writing about biographical figures showed a sort of failure of the writer’s imagination.” And then? “Absolutely busted. Because then I wrote Dancer…and then more or less ever since I’ve been hovering in this territory.”
He’s not alone. Here is a list, far from exhaustive and widely varying in quality, of Ragtime’s progeny, with some of the historical figures who appear in each work: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (Marilyn Monroe); Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (John Brown); Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (the mass-murderer Harry F. Powers); Hollywood by Gore Vidal (William Randolph Hearst, Warren Harding, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks – not to mention Vidal’s more conventional historical novels such as Lincoln, Burr and 1876); The Public Burning by Robert Coover (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, the Marx Brothers); Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas More); The Women by T.C. Boyle (Frank Lloyd Wright); DaVinci’s Bicycle by Guy Davenport (Picasso, Leonardo, Joyce, and Apollinaire); Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda and Scott, Hem, Ezra Pound); Dead Stars and Still Holding by Bruce Wagner (Michael Douglas, the Kardashians, a Russell Crowe look-alike and a Drew Barrymore look-alike); The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Franco, Truman, Stalin, Churchill, Mao); and the movies Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks meets Elvis, Bear Bryant, JFK, LBJ, and Richard Nixon) and Zelig (Woody Allen brushes up against Babe Ruth, Adolph Hitler, and others in this faux documentary, with added commentary from the real-life Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and Bruno Bettelheim).
The last three items on this list illustrate the dangers of the strategy Doctorow pursued in Ragtime. In each of these three works, the central character encounters historical figures by pure chance and for no good reason, other than to amuse the reader or audience, or show off the filmmaker’s technical wizardry. There is nothing organic or plausible about any of these contrived encounters, and they drag the works down to the level of mere schtick.
On the other end of spectrum is one of Ragtime’s worthiest successors, the under-appreciated 1990 novel Silver Light by David Thomson, a writer best known for A Biographical Dictionary of Film. The novel takes the central conceit of Ragtime – fictional characters interacting with historical figures – and then gives it a delicious twist. Using the medium he knows so well, the movies, Thomson gives us a rambling cast of characters, a mix of real and imagined people and – here’s the twist – the actors who played some of them in movies. It was not until I read the extensive Note on Characters at the end of the book that I understood the histories of these people. The character Noah Cross, for instance, was lifted directly from the 1974 movie Chinatown. The (real? imagined?) character Susan Garth is the cantankerous 80-year-old daughter of a cattle rancher named Matthew Garth, who was played by Montgomery Clift in the 1948 Howard Hawks movie Red River, which was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase. Thomson makes superb use of this layered source material. In a scene that goes to the heart of such fiction, Thomson puts Susan Garth on the Red River set outside Willcox, Arizona, in 1946 with Hawks, Clift, and John Wayne. No one on the movie crew is aware that Susan is the daughter of the character Clift is playing in the movie. She has told Hawks her name is Hickey, and when Clift arrives on the set, Hawks performs the introductions:
“Miss Hickey…may I introduce Mr. Clift, our Matthew Garth?”
The spurious father and the unknown daughter shook hands, worlds and fifty years apart.
“Interesting role you’ve got,” said Susan.
“Well, look,” grinned Clift, tolerantly, “this is just a Western, you know.”
“Still,” she persevered, “the real Garth. He was an unusual fellow.”
“Hey, Howard,” whined Clift, “was Garth a real person? Is that right?”
Delicate and dangerous, Howard saunteringly rejoined them. “There are no real people,” he told them. “See if they sue.”
There are no real people; there are only the ones we can imagine truly. When I read Hawks’s made-up words, I could hear echoes of Clifford Geertz and Colum McCann and E.L. Doctorow and every writer on my incomplete and ever-growing list.
The I’s Have It
This homage to Ragtime would not be complete without mention of two related strains of fiction. In the first, a writer places a historical figure at center stage and then attempts to channel that character’s voice and enter his mind. One of this strain’s early avatars was the wildly popular 1934 novel I, Claudius, in which Robert Graves set out to refute the conventional view that the man who ruled the Roman Empire from 41 to 54 A.D. was a stuttering, doddering idiot. (Graves followed it a year later with Claudius the God.) Jerry Stahl took on a similar revisionist challenge in 2008 with I, Fatty, a look into the dark soul of the supposedly sunny silent-movie star Roscoe Arbuckle. Other figures from history, literature, and myth who have become titles of I, ______ novels include Hogarth, Iago and Lucifer. And then there are such masterpieces of ventriloquism as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Margeurite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (whose narrator, fictional 111-year-old Jack Crabb, recounts his encounters with such historical figures as Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok).
In the Epilogue to Little Big Man, Ralph Fielding Snell, the fictional character who tape-recorded Jack Crabb’s reminiscences of the West, offers this caveat about their veracity: “So as I take my departure, dear reader, I leave the choice in your capable hands. Jack Crabb was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions.” Or maybe he was both. Does it matter? This novel, like Ragtime, is distinguished not by the facts it relates, but by the truths it reveals.
The second strain is something that has come to be known as “self-insertion,” which sounds like a sexual kink but is actually the increasingly common practice of writers inserting themselves, as characters with their own names, into their novels and stories. The practice – gimmick? – has proven irresistible to Ben Marcus, Jonathan Ames, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Philip Roth, and Nick Tosches, among others. As the wave of postmodernism became a tsunami, this trend was probably inevitable; mercifully it’s not yet universal. I can’t imagine coming across a character named E.L. Doctorow in a novel by E.L. Doctorow. His imagination is too rich and too demanding to allow such a thing.
Too Much Like Work
With the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination now upon us, it’s worth noting that the events in Dallas in November of 1963 continue to inspire a steadily growing shelf of American fiction, movies, and TV shows. Among the writers and filmmakers who have mined the assassination for fictional ends are Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Oliver Stone, Bobbi Kornblit, J.G. Ballard, and Stephen King. For readers operating under the illusion that novelists and filmmakers use historical figures and events as crutches for a hobbled imagination, listen to Stephen King’s thoughts on the research that went into the writing of his novel, 11/22/63: “I have never tried anything like that before and I’m not sure I would ever want to try it again because, man, it was too much like work.”
E.L. Doctorow has been doing that hard work for more than half a century, producing novels and stories that have illuminated the American soul by bringing American history to life. It’s why he deserves his Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It’s what makes him a national treasure.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves: This was my favorite book of the year. I really couldn’t put it down. It’s just a classic injustice/revenge story, with a lot of poisonings and beheadings, following the life of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who unexpectedly (especially to himself) became Emperor of Rome in the 1st century A.D. Graves makes Claudius into a wholly sympathetic, pretty funny lead character, who basically watches on the sidelines while his family kills each other off. On something like the second page, Graves (as Claudius) is right on when he says something about how this won’t be another “he begat he who begat him who begat him…” bore. If you really dig it, I’d recommend continuing on to Claudius the God, which picks up right after I, Claudius ends. It’s another 900 pages or so. By the end of that one, you’ll have had your fill. (Although, later I did rent the BBC documentary too … I loved it!)
Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan: I’d never really known the chronology of Frank Sinatra’s career, especially the rough times. This book charts his early life in Hoboken and years as a rising star, but most interesting is his reinvention of himself in the late 1940s. He really fell out of favor with the public after being listed as unfit for duty in WWII, and over the next years, while his superstar wife, Ava Gardner, was sleeping with every man she could get her hands on, he sank deeper and deeper into a Jack Daniels-depression and plunged out of the spotlight. But even as rock ‘n’ roll was eclipsing his big-band standards as the music de jour, Frank somehow found a new voice (with help from his new string arranger Nelson Riddle) and climbed back to the top. Anyone with even a passing interest in Frank should check this one out.
King Suckerman by George P. Pelecanos: I’m from D.C. originally, so I get a kick out of the hyper-local scene here, and all the little historical details. Not sure if that will resonate with anyone else. This is a thug and cop novel with shotguns and drugs. This is not the D.C. you will find if you go there today.
The Forever War by Dexter Filkins: This guy is not afraid of diving into the serious shit. It’s a first-hand account of the fighting and aftermath in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over and over you just can’t believe what you’re reading.
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I like to read novels, obviously. Until recently, I very seldom read anything but novels. Until recently, I preferred my facts to be folded into stories, particularly those featuring sexy ladies or illegitimate children or going to Oxford. Occasionally I would read an “historical novel,” especially if it was by James Michener, especially if I found it in a hotel lobby. I read it, assumed it to be full of true things, and resolved to remember one of them should the subject ever come up in conversation.
For example, if anyone mentioned South Africa, I might recall Michener’s seminal work The Covenant, which I found a hotel in China and read on the train. Then I could say “The Broderbund, so evil, so sad,” and hope that the conversation ended soon.
I confess: all I know about Alexander the Great I learned from Mary Renault (and how).
That was then. My life is different now; now I read with a notebook for writing down dates and important facts about caliphal succession. I notice, and probably my classmates do also, that I am vague on the finer points of Important Things in History. I sound, I suspect, like a person whose educational keystones are hundreds of novels, a shaky reading of Edward Said, and liberal blogs filled with rather broad humor.
Then again, perhaps a familiarity with novels does not leave one so unsuited for the study of history. Evidently, many historical sources are novels of a type, except more boring.
I, Claudius is a special novel, one of my favorites. Not only is it my go-to source for Roman history, it is a masterpiece of the form–the novel, I mean, not its degraded cousin, the historical novel. I, Claudius is also sort of a miracle, something that Robert Graves, who identified as a poet, wrote simply as a way to make fast money. The things I have done to make fast money include working in a toy store, answering lewd customer service emails, and editing someone’s college paper about the movie The Piano with Holly Hunter.
What Robert Graves did was read scores of historical texts in the original Latin and Greek. He then used said texts to write a riveting first-person narrative about the history of Rome 44 B.C. to 41 A.D., subsequently making a boatload of money because it was so infinitely readable. Then he wrote a sequel, Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina, a seamless continuation of the first book. This is when people who wrote things other than Teen Paranormal Romance could get a contract for a sequel. Imagine it.
All I know about Roman History I learned from Robert Graves, and it can be summed up as follows: Livia convinces Augustus, first emperor of the Roman Empire, to leave his first wife and marry her; she then uses her position of power to poison almost everybody. Tiberius, meanwhile, is doing something so perverted they can’t even tell you what it is. Common consensus holds Claudius the Stammerer (the narrator) a nitwit, but he is smarter than everyone and ends up in charge before marrying (for political reasons) his own awful bag who brings him down. There is the eternal wrangle about whether Rome should be a Republic or have an Emperor, familiar to those of us who have seen the movie Gladiator.
Romans had different ideas about family than modern people do, so everyone is constantly adopting adult children and marrying one another, which is sometimes confusing. Furthermore, everyone has one of four possible names, plus some extras, in varying order, but Graves does a remarkable job of keeping it relatively simple.
I, Claudius and Claudius the God have the uncanny effect, true of other well-written historical fiction (I’m thinking specifically of Mary Renault’s Alexandriad, and among them, The Persian Boy) of sounding delightfully modern. And it was written two thousand years ago, in 1934.
For historians with a sense of perspective and the linguistic chops, ancient sources can feel alive. For most of us without those things, reading translations with little or no context given or effort made to sex things up, primary sources are forbidding. Robert Graves was patently a scholar–consider his massive cross-referenced mythological compendium, The Greek Myths. He was also a great artist. Some of us need Robert Graves or a person like him to read the sources, synthesize, and make them live. James Michener doesn’t count; there’s a reason James Michener’s books are always getting left in hotel lobbies.
Knowing that Graves considered himself a poet foremost, I have tried to read his poetry, but prose is closer to my heart. Graves’s (partial) autobiography Goodbye to All That is another one of my favorite books. It describes his experiences at school and in World War I, in a wry, warm way. It’s the perfect autobiographical writing, the sort that makes you wish the author was a personal friend.
Then again, illustrating the eternal problem of historical sources and selective inclusion therein, I read (not in his autobiography) that Graves could be very grumpy, and had woman trouble. But serious woman trouble, as in he had a long-standing menage-a-trois with his wife and another woman, and decided he liked his wife better, and the other woman threw herself out of the window. Then he changed his mind about the wife and hobbled off with the other lady after her bones knitted together. Kind of like a Roman!
Except in Rome, his new paramour would have convinced him to exile the wife to a malarial island, so she would get a fever and die. That’s history–you’ll find it in Graves.
I remember when I first started watching The Sopranos: early winter in the small town in Oklahoma where my then-girlfriend (now wife) had gone to work among the Cherokees. I was on a break from college, but my girlfriend got a grand total of something like four days off around Christmas (this notwithstanding the prominence of Christianity in the culture of Tahlequah). And so, from 7:30 in the morning until 6:00 at night, I was on my own. Believe me when I say: there is no winter like an Oklahoma winter. I’d write in the morning and then, in the afternoon, distract myself from the endless flat grayness of the country outside the living room window by reading books and watching movies.This was back in the days of VHS, and one day at the Blockbuster I picked up a tape with the first three episodes of this premium-cable-channel show I’d been hearing so much about: The Sopranos. It was love at first sight. Aside from the searing performances of the leads and a memorable character turn from a minor hero of mine, “Miami” Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band, the show offered all of the addictive pleasures of serial storytelling. This, I think, was what made The Sopranos feel so much like a novel. It was Dickens with gabbagul in place of figgy pudding. (And mightn’t Copperfield’s Barkis have recognized a kindred soul in Silvio Dante? Or Mr. Micawber tendered to Paulie Walnuts some prolix offer of friendship?)Seven and a half years later, the titular Sopranos have reached the end of their long and erratic arc, and heat and humidity are on the rise in Brooklyn. (Believe me when I say: there is no summer like a New York summer.) And the question arises: how to fill the empty place Tony & Co. have left behind? How to pass the long summer afternoons?The obvious quick fix for those suffering from Sopranos withdrawal is The Godfather, but Puzo’s dialogue might feel a bit flat after David Chase’s. So here’s a suggestion: Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God bear more than a passing resemblance to The Sopranos, and are similarly well-written and densely plotted. Given that the murderous matriarchs of these narratives are both named Livia, I wonder if Chase wasn’t inspired by Graves. Beneath the disparate Italian settings – Rome at the time of Christ and Jersey in the time of American Idol (how far we’ve come) – The Sopranos and I, Claudius are both sagas of intrigue and betrayal, of men whose ability to trust their friends and loved ones wanes as their proximity to power increases.If it’s the psychodrama of The Sopranos that appeals to you, however, I can recommend an even less likely analogue: Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. Here, trust is also at a premium. The setting is not a mob war-zone, however, but ranges from the WASPy corridors of a Fortune 500 company to the bucolic suburbs of Connecticut. Like Tony Soprano, Heller’s Bob Slocum is an upwardly mobile executive suffering from moral rot. He is as unpleasant to spend time with as Tony has been this season, and yet his intertwined rage and loneliness seem to shed some kind of bleak light on the human condition.Heller is, I think, a vastly underrated prose writer. His prefers a limited diction to the omnivorous vocabulary of fellow-travelers like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, but his syntactic subtlety yields sentences of arresting power. Check out this outburst from Slocum, worthy of Dr. Melfi’s office: “Even fancy bakeries now use a substitute for whipped cream that looks more like whipped cream than whipped cream does, keeps its color and texture longer, doesn’t spoil, and costs much less, yielding larger profits. […] It tastes like s–t. Nobody cares but me. From sea to shining sea the country is filling with slag, shale, and used-up automobile tires. The fruited plain is coated with insecticide and chemical fertilizers. Even pure horses–t is hard to come by these days. They add preservatives. You don’t find fish in lakes and rivers anymore. You have to catch them in cans. Towns die. Oil spills. Money talks. God listens. God is good, a real team player. ‘America the Beautiful’ isn’t: it was all over the day the first white man set foot on the continent to live.”It’s all here, in embryonic form: the rage, the narcissism, the depression, the nostalgia, the soured aspirations. (Not to mention the serial infidelity and a climax suspiciously reminiscent of the death of Christopher Moltisanti this season on The Sopranos.) I don’t know whether David Chase has read Something Happened, but the section headings Heller uses to structure Slocum’s 550-page monologue could just as easily describe the trajectory of seven seasons of The Sopranos: “I get the willies”; “My daughter’s unhappy”; “My little boy is having difficulties”; “There’s no getting around it”…Perhaps most significantly, Chase and Heller are both willing to take literally the Freudian constructs that postmodern discourse has reduced to the level of metaphor, or bumper sticker. Slocum and Soprano are men haunted by a small handful of dreams and traumas (e.g., by their love for and resentment of their mothers). And every interaction out in the great world is in some way a Freudian replaying of a domestic trauma. As psychology, this might not be as nuanced as what you’d get in your local therapists’ office, but it comes cheaper, and in deft hands attains the mythic resonance of art. In Something Happened, especially, we see the way that every conflict comes back to the primal fourfold of Slocum’s household: man, woman, girl, boy. Every man is father, son, and brother, and every woman is mother, wife, and sister. And, returning to The Sopranos, we find that, however baroque the FBI’s organizational charts get, it really is all about family, this thing of ours.In the thirty years since its publication,Something Happened has been obscured by the long shadow cast by Heller’s first novel, Catch-22. But I have no doubt that, on the bookshelves of the future, nestled between the DVD boxed sets, there will be a place for it… as there will be for The Sopranos. This summer, before you move on to Deadwood, or to the BBC’s miniseries version of I, Claudius, you might pick up Something Happened for your maintenance dose of literary misanthropy.
Katie writes in with this question:When I was in Rome I read I, Claudius [by Robert Graves] and loved it. Now I’m looking for other historical fiction, of any period or nationality, that does a comparable job of bringing a time and place to life and maintaining some literary credibility. Any suggestions?According to Wikipedia, not the definitive source in this realm but a decent enough place to start, a work of historical fiction can be defined as one in which “the story is set among historical events, or more generally, in which the time of the action predates the lifetime of the author.” This is a bit broad for my taste, but I think it’s a good place to start. Going by this definition, a lot of books that we think of first as fiction could also qualify as historical fiction. Some of my favorite books by contemporary authors fall into this category. T.C. Boyle’s Water Music is about a Scottish explorer in Africa in the late 18th century, and Edward P. Jones’ book The Known World is about black slave owners in Virginia in the 1840s. Another example of a book like these is Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel, Cold Mountain.But these books aren’t really historical fiction in the same way that I, Claudius is historical fiction. Traditionally, in historical fiction, the history is like another character in the novel, and the action is more likely to be ripped from the history books, as it were, placing the reader in a novelized version of true historical events. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell about Atlanta during the Civil War is a famous example. Another is James Clavell’s Shogun about the 16th century exploration of Asia. Of the few historical novels I’ve read, my favorite would have to be Leon Uris’ Trinity, a powerful epic about the Irish struggle for independence at the turn of the 20th century.There is also historical fiction that hews closely to a particular niche, like the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, both of which take place during the time when tall-masted ships ruled the high seas. The there’s Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, which is prehistoric, historical fiction. I know, crazy.I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who have historical fiction to recommend, so please share in the comments, and thanks, Katie, for your question.Update: Jenny exposes my unfamiliarity with historical fiction by suggesting many, many fantastic-sounding books in the comments. Check it out, and leave some more suggestions if you’ve get them.
My friend Nancy sent this story my way the other day. Apparently, back in 1998 a woman posted on her weblog an interesting discovery. She realized after reading the Robert Graves historical novel I, Claudius and the Richard Condon cult classic The Manchurian Candidate back to back that Condon borrowed passages from Graves’ book. There has been a little bit of hype surrounding The Manchurian Candidate lately due to an impending remake of the movie and a new edition of the book with a forward by Louis Menand, so perhaps that is what caused this revalation to come to light so long after its original discovery. Menand himself notes the bizarre patchwork of styles in Condon’s work and now experts are positing that Condon may have borrowed from a number of different books when writing his novel. What strikes me when reading this is that neither the author of the article nor the experts consulted seem to think this charge is particularly damning. I think maybe this stems from the fact that Condon has never been considered much more than a pulp writer anyway. Here’s the full article if you want to read more.More Than Just BaseballWhere have I been? It seems that during the nearly twenty years that have passed since he penned one of the best books ever written about baseball, Nine Innings, sportswriter Daniel Okrent went on to become an editor of Life Magazine and then an editor of Time Magazine. Now he has a new book out that is in keeping with his more recent journalistic pursuits. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center chronicles the interesting story of a landmark of entertainment in New York City. Here’s what the New York Times has to say about the book, and here’s an excerpt.