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Big as Life

Let’s start with an absence.

Some years ago, we were in Berkeley, wandering from secondhand bookshop to secondhand bookshop. We had a good haul but, as always, there was one book I was looking for that I just couldn’t find. In one shop, as we chatted with the shopkeeper as he added up the damage, I finally asked about it. He looked blank. Then he said, ‘Hang on, I’ll check it out,’ and fired up his computer. ‘Ah yes,’ he said after a moment, ‘here it is. Oh …’

Even then, nearly a decade ago, copies of Big As Life by E.L. Doctorow were changing hands for a minimum of $600. So I suspect I may never lay my hands on one. It has been disowned by the author, it has not been reprinted since its first publication in the mid-60s, but I do want to read it. Big As Life was Doctorow’s second novel (after Bad Man from Bodie which was later retitled Welcome to Hard Times) and it is his only work of science fiction: why would I not want to read it? But I also, on minimal evidence (I’ve never even read a synopsis of the plot), have a sense of the novel as a cap on the trajectory of his work.

There is a very good review of Homer and Langley in the current issue of the London Review of Books which begins: ‘The historical novelist E.L. Doctorow …’, and this made me stop and think. I see Doctorow as charting a haphazard history of America from the Civil War (The March) to the present (City of God), but I have somehow never got around to translating that into thinking of him as an ‘historical novelist’. (That review went on to confuse me further by comparing Doctorow with Dos Passos and DeLillo, and I have to wonder if what binds them is no more than the coincidence of their initial.)

I tend to think of ‘historical novelists’, good or bad, as exploring the historicity of their subject. The past is a foreign country, and they are always conscious of that foreignness. The supreme example of this at the moment is Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall. But in Doctorow, I never get the sense that he is writing about a foreign country, but rather about something that is still contemporary, still here and now. Which may be why I tend to think his best novels are those (World’s Fair, Loon Lake, The Book of Daniel) that relate to his own life, that feel as if he is placing himself in contemporary experience.

I first encountered Doctorow, as so many others did, when Ragtime came out, that splendid cornucopia of jazz age experience that perhaps feels thinner in retrospect than it did at the time. But at the time, I hadn’t read anything like it: the filmic montage of events and experiences that (as I have discovered is true for all Doctorow’s work) doesn’t go in much for depth of feeling but still manages to convey an intense sense of what it was like to be there. I still don’t know what it was that most attracted me to the novel, whether it was the mode of writing (my first encounter with the fringes of what I would later come to identify as postmodernism), the period, or the free and easy play with real characters even I had heard of. Whatever, I was hooked.

It was easy after that to go out and get his previous books, Welcome to Hard Times and The Book of Daniel (it would be many years before I discovered there was another mysterious work in between these two). Welcome to Hard Times was a disappointment, it was an interesting revisionist take on the western but as a novel it felt as thin as the fake shop fronts in that lonely western township. But The Book of Daniel really hit the spot, over in Britain I just hadn’t realised that modern American history could be as interesting as this.

I’ve been reading him ever since, and the more I read the more I see the books all fitting neatly into the same historical trajectory. The March, The Waterworks, Welcome to Hard Times, Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, World’s Fair, Loon Lake, The Book of Daniel, City of God, and now Homer and Langley which covers the period roughly from Ragtime to City of God. There are obvious gaps in the chronicle, nothing that really covers the last decade or so of the 19th century, a big concentration on the Depression, nothing on the Second World War, and nothing again between the late-60s and the present. Nevertheless, a coherent chronicle it does seem to be. Told always from the outside of society (maybe that’s another reason I don’t automatically think of him as an historical novelist, his characters are part of the historical flow only by accident), distinctly left leaning in inclination, and suggesting in the end that life is to be endured rather than directed.

Which brings us back to Big As Life, because the more I read Doctorow the more I get the impression that the future of Big as Life is what this chronicle is leading towards. And I really want to see where it is going.

5 thoughts on “Big as Life

  1. I wish I’d read more of Doctorow’s fiction…I’ve only read one story of his that was published a few years back in the New Yorker. I can’t remember its title, but it was about a religious sect that lived on a compound somewhere in Pennsylvania, I think. It was historical in the sense that it recalled recent instances of religious sects in distress in this country.

    1. I think that story is included in his collection Sweet Land Stories. I’m not sure Doctorow is at his best in short fiction, he works better with more space and more leisure, but I seem to remember that one was pretty good.

  2. As a sidebar, I’m a second hand bookstore, Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul’s hound and EL Doctorow’s books show up with amazing frequency, more than any ‘literary’ author. I’d think this has more to do with monstrous print runs than anything.

    I’m trying to think of the top ten literary novels most seen in these shops, besides EL there are:

    The Corrections
    Sue Miller stuff
    Cold Mountain
    Jane Smiley stuff
    Updike stuff
    And of course, Joyce Carol Oates

  3. Wow, even more curious about big as life now.

    Just recently fell in love with Doctorows writing from reading ragtime and welcome to hard times. I felt like the depth of the latter may not have been as deep ragtime, but still did it for me in terms of character archetypes and the way that he cast a sense of the type of events that might bring about a bad man like turner through jimmy.
    Also I thought it was cool how you can see the real development of Doctorow as a novelist; the motifs of hard times are below the surface, but as he gains experience and later writes ragtime and others, the field of depth becomes much, much deeper.
    Just flipped the first page of book of daniel a few minutes ago before big as life sparked my curiosity. Hope it’s as good as everyone says!

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