Tuesday, July 23, 2013

E. L. Doctorow's "Ragtime"

I enjoyed the tapestry of lives in the first half of the book, which weaves together fictional and historical characters like Harry Houdini, Pierpont Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, and society lady Evelyn Nesbit, whose husband shot her lover, architect Stanford White. Tha narrative drifts in an indeterminate but compelling manner. The short sentences are brisk and factual.

In the second half of the book, however, the narrative is taken over by the single story of Coalhouse Walker, a black musician who seeks revenge against a racist fire chief who humiliated him and destroyed his Model T. Coalhouse's story borrows from the German novella Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, published in 1811. Doctorow has acknowledged the borrowings on many occasions, but still it's strange to end such innovative music on such a traditional note.

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