May 2011

Morgan Macgregor

fiction

All the Time in the World: New and Collected Stories by E. L. Doctorow

I have a confession to make: until last week, I’d read nothing by E. L. Doctorow. I think I used to own the soundtrack to the film adaptation of Ragtime, but that’s about as far as my Doctorow education went. And so I approached All the Time In The World: New and Selected Stories with zero preconceived notions about Doctorow as a writer, and was surprised to find that I was, upon a first “shallow” read, able to identify the exact year in which Doctorow stopped being able to write effective short stories: 2004.

I’m going to make an assumption. Since All the Time in the World is a collection of stories spanning from 1968 to 2010, and since, as the writer himself states in the preface, there’s no connective tissue as it were between the stories, “no Winesburg here to be mined,” I’m going to assume that Doctorow views these pieces as the most representative of his abilities in the form. Given that, I can say with surety that something happened in 2004. The pieces here that were published before that year are taut, emotionally corrosive, and deeply disturbing in the titillating way that short fiction can be. They’re about the invisible people in the American landscape, the tragic drudges driven to despair, the intellectually inferior, the fiercely faithful, the fiercely unfaithful. The stories published after 2004 nosedive straight into the (at this point) well-mined banalities, cliches, and moral quagmires of contemporary American life. And they don’t even do it well.

So let’s start with these later stories, as they all seem to fall prey to the same brand of strained grappling: an obvious attempt by Doctorow, no doubt, to adapt to the form du jour of the contemporary short story, a style that simply doesn’t suit him.

The title story, told through the lens of a disillusioned Mongolian immigrant living in New York City, employs almost every trope of this vein of short fiction (I know you know the vein to which I’m referring): mocking American culture and idiosyncrasies by describing them (“I mean why, outside of every movie theater I run past, are people standing on line waiting to get in? What or who has persuaded them? And the movie theaters themselves with their filmed stories that I am supposed to worry over? Sitting in the dark and worrying over actors acting out stories? And the need to buy popcorn before you do this? To buy popcorn in movie theaters like you like votive candles in cathedrals?”); lamenting about the degradation of the English language (“So I don’t say lay down, I say lie down. I say would have and will not have. I don’t say you and me aren’t getting anywhere, I say you and I aren’t getting anywhere. I say you and I aren’t getting anywhere is an idiom”); and worst of all, coy meaningless dialogue that no one would ever say, employed expressly to manipulate emotion from the reader.

Behold:

Other than to the grammarian I am never sure to whom I will be talking. I speed-dial my cell phone. I get you. You may ask to whom do I think I’m talking. I say I’m talking to you. And who may that be, you say. And then I recognize who it is, it is my mother.

You have all the time in the world, she says.

Until what?

Until something happens, Mother says.

What can happen?

If we knew, she says, and breaks the connection.

I regret to say that all of the later pieces in the collection are similar. “Wakefield,” “Edgemont Drive,” and “Assimilation,” all written in the late 2000s, are implausible and teeming with obvious emotional appeals that simply don’t work.

Take “Wakefield,” the opening story, in which a man decides to start living in the loft above his garage without telling his wife (or anybody). He simply fails to return from work one day, and lives, undetected, for a year, twenty feet from his house. Aside from the boring mid-life-crisis cliches on display here, I have a hard time believing that no one -- in all of the time and resources expended looking for him -- thought to look in the garage. I won’t even mention the fact that somehow, he also befriends two mentally-challenged people living in an in-home sanatorium next door. Oops, I mentioned it.

“Edgemont Drive” and “Assimilation” are very much the same. Something rather large happens (a stranger shows up at a family’s house, claiming he used to live there and attempting to reinsert himself into the house, a man is hired to marry an illegal immigrant tangled up with the Russian mob) and then no one does anything. The characters act like robots, and the narrative voice is uniformly curmudgeonly, irritated, annoying. Rather like… ahem… an old man.

In the preface, Doctorow compares the work of writing novels versus that of writing short stories. He says that novels necessarily allow for exploration, that,

as you work, the sentences become generative, the book foretold in that image, that fragment of  conversation, begins to emerge and itself participates in its composition, telling you what it is and how it must be realized.

A story, by contrast, usually comes to you as a situation, with the characters and setting irrevocably attached to it. Stories are assertive, they are self-announcing, their voice and circumstances decided and immutable. It is not a matter of finding your way to them; they’ve arrived unbidden, and more or less whole, with a demand that you put everything else aside and write them down before they fade as dreams fade.

I’d like to posit that this is a fairly new philosophy for Doctorow, this diminished, prefab view of short stories, likening them to dreams. No one wants to hear someone else’s dreams. Why? Because they’re boring, and they don’t make sense.

He certainly must not have felt this way when he wrote the earlier pieces in this collection, because they are wholly more realized. “Heist” was expanded into the novel City of God, and rightly. It’s a haunting and mysterious blasting away of the psyche of one reverend whose church is being pillaged by an unknown entity. His searing appeal to a God he questions comes in the form of an email, and it’s devilishly good.

“Jolene: A Life” tells the story of one unfortunate young woman through a seemingly endless string of abusive relationships she seems to attract, one after the other. Her resilience is harrowing, her hope courageous (if naive), and Doctorow spares none of the grim details of the injustices she suffers.

In “A House on the Plains,” an imbecilic young man describes the life of murder and fraud his mother has duped him into. The language is unwavering, but it’s the guts of the storytelling that really shine here. It’s guts-out, and the pacing and restraint shown by Doctorow display a writer at his apex. After I finished it, the word that came to mind was “arresting.” I felt arrested, though not in the sense of feeling seized; arrested as in stopped. I was stopped. Paused, unable to break the spell for several minutes, even to move from the couch. Unable to break away from the story.

The best story in the collection is “Walter John Harmon,” a seriously creepy rumination on the fate of a Branch Davidian-type cult living in the middle of nowhere once their prophet, Walter John Harmon, has up and left with all of their money and one of their wives. The narrator, Jim, whose wife has disappeared with the prophet, describes how they’d come to live on the compound, awaiting the “City of God” under the holy guidance of WJH.

The story is funny and wrenching at the same time; on the one hand, Doctorow lets outsiders speak to the lunacy of Harmon’s scam, while simultaneously the reader is drawn into Jim’s deep and very heartfelt belief. The story provides not only a fully-realized internal landscape of the maniacally reverent, the religious fundamentalist (hellfire is on its way, people, and we who are saved will stand aside and watch the sinners burn) but also poses some even more loaded questions about the contemporary American psyche. Once a month, the community invites those who are interested in finding out more about the “Unfolding Revelation,” and the way of life of the followers, to an “Embracing.” Jim says, “In our early we didn’t think of security. Now we copied down driver’s licenses and asked for signatures and names of family members.”

Later, he worries that although their society is, at its core, isolationist, wanting nothing to do with the rest of the world, it nevertheless needs things from the world; namely, resources. Money. “Several of our parcels of valley land for the descent of the Holy City were heavily mortgaged.” The end of the story has the dwindling community hunkering down through a brutal winter, making plans to erect a wall around themselves (a fence, perhaps?), and hinting at a Waco-style disaster.

So what can one say about this collection? It’s clear that short stories are no longer Doctorow’s strong suit, but it’s also clear that he knows what makes a good one. It could be (it looks like) he’s just stopped caring about them.

All the Time in the World: New and Collected Stories by E. L. Doctorow
Random House
ISBN: 1400069637
304 Pages