by EL Doctorow
It's really hard for me to objectively review this book. As someone who has a great love and respect for history I've always stayed away from alternate history novels. "Ragtime" isn't as alternative as Turtledove's "Guns of the South" for example where the Confederacy wins the Civil War; instead Doctorow uses real people in fictitious situations. Was there really a homoerotic massage between anarchist Emma Goldman and renowned beauty Evelyn Nesbit? Unlikely. Did JP Morgan and Henry Ford actually meet to discuss forming some kind of secret society? Probably not. Did Houdini really crash his car into a pole outside a family's home in New Rochelle, New York? No.
But that's where the action begins in this story. An unnamed family consisting of Father, Mother, little boy (or the boy), Grandfather, and Younger Brother meet the famed escapist when he crashes his horseless carriage in front of their house in 1902. From there the family's life proceeds to unwind as Father goes on an expedition to the North Pole, Mother saves a discarded black baby and takes in the mother, and Younger Brother has an affair with Nesbit before getting caught up in revolutionary activities. As for the little boy, he's present.
Written in 1975, "Ragtime" isn't a novel of the 1900s-1910s so much as it's a novel of the disillusionment and rebellion of the 1960s-1970s. The contrast of a loss of innocence for this family against the backdrop of a prosperous America on the verge of becoming a world power is where "Ragtime" is most effective. Viewed strictly on that level it's a good enough book.
Doctorow's short sentences and lack of much dialog make the novel an easy read. It got me in mind--from recent books I'd read--of Cormac McCarthy writing a Gore Vidal novel. The benefit being that unlike Vidal's "Hollywood" I read a couple months ago, there's not a lot of chatting at cocktail parties. So at least the reader will not be bored.
But as I said in the beginning, as a fan of history I really can't endorse this approach. If you're going to use historical characters to create events that never happened--like those mentioned above--then how much difference is there really between that and Turtledove's wholesale approach at altering history? Not much, in my opinion. If I can do anything I want with these people who did exist, then what's stopping me from writing a novel where Abe Lincoln is a bloodthirsty serial killer at night? Nothing, although maybe someone beat me to it. I'm probably all wet on this, but I didn't like it in Vidal's book or in this book, and it's why--along with the bad reviews--I stayed away from Mailer's recent novel about Hitler's childhood. It's fine if you want to write about the past in allegorical terms, but why not just use all fictitious characters as well as situations?
For better or worse, that is all.