E.L. Doctorow’s City of God is about the origins of the known universe and of life on earth, the fathomless horror of the Holocaust, the place of Jewish and Christian worship and of religious faith in general at the dawn of a new millennium, jazz, desire, movies, war, writing… in other words, one of our senior literary lions has decided to grapple with cosmic questions, and attention must be paid. Sit up straight, please, and eyes on your text: This is not a novel to read while the TV is on, although if you hatchet your way through its combination of intimidation, inscrutability, and show-offiness, you may feel that you’re sitting next to a hyperactive genius who’s abusing the remote control.
Admirers of Doctorow’s brilliant 1975 novel ”Ragtime” will remember that no American novelist is better at creating a narrative whose spine can support an awesome burden of political/philosophical/symbolic baggage without losing its suppleness. And he’s no slouch at capturing what the turning of a century means, both for those who were there and for their descendants through the generations.
If only that were all there was to it. In ”City of God,” the narrative – or should I say ”narrative”? – isn’t just ”meta,” it’s metastatic, shaped with such furious contrivance that its bones snap. Faced with a work so overarching in its ambition and daunting in its design, most reviewers are likely to holler either mess or masterpiece. It would be no tragedy if the book were both – and depending on what page you flip to, it sometimes is – but overall, it’s neither. One can easily mock Doctorow’s splintered technique, in which a tangent about theologian Paul Tillich quickly gives way to a detective-novel pastiche, a brief musing on neutrinos, and a buoyant dissection of ”Me and My Shadow.”
But Doctorow never succumbs to mere randomness. In ”City of God,” his fragmentary style applies the big bang theory (a discussion of which begins the novel) to storytelling, tearing the definition of it apart and allowing the center to be defined by the shards exploding out of it. As chaotic as the novel often seems, the chain reactions caused as its atoms collide can be fascinating as often as they are frustrating.
Masterpiece, though, is pushing it. Big themes and grand designs don’t in themselves make great books (in fact, it’s hard to think of a more disappointing category of recent literature than novels that have been self-defined as ”millennial”), and in ”City of God,” the ends don’t justify the meanderings. Doctorow’s best novels – ”Ragtime,” The Book of Daniel,” ”Billy Bathgate”– pulse with ideas, with history, with the big picture, but they flow through rich veins of character and plot. In ”City of God,” he’s built something else: a cathedral of mirrors that ultimately reflects nothing more than its own overelaborate architecture.