Dog Bite Degustation: Doctorow's "The Book of Daniel"

on Friday, May 21, 2010
E. L. Doctorow is the kind of author who makes you want to give up writing altogether. His prose is so beautiful, his ideas so perfectly simple yet profound and original, that you cannot hope to attain literary art of his order. When Horace Engdahl slammed American literature, deeming it unworthy of attention from the Nobel Prize committee, readers worldwide were whipped into a lynch-mob-style frenzy, demanding justice for the likes of Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates. Their protest was sound. Engdahl was an idiot. But in this humble reader's opinion it isn't Roth or Oates who deserve the accolade. Rather, it was Edgar Doctorow who was the baby in Engdahl's bathwater. Sure, he may be less prominent on the world stage, a quiet, humble voice, but he is the greatest living American author and any international body worth its salt must give due consideration to his work. There are many incredible books in the Doctorow canon. World's Fair, Ragtime and even last year's brilliant hymn to New York, Homer and Langley, demand to be read. However,The Book of Daniel is Doctorow's masterpiece and so it was with considerable glee that I dived back in for this month's Dog Bite Degustation challenge.

No novel captures the pulse of a nation at a particular point in history like The Book of Daniel. A thinly veiled fictionalisation of the Rosenberg trial and execution, it perfectly skewers McCarthy-era America, laying bare its pig-headed march towards pointless injustice. The true genius of the novel is its faux-objectivity, the way in which it uses the couple's son to tell the story. Viewing this era of national insanity through the eyes of a child - albeit one intimately involved in the events - works as both metaphor and instrument. It also ensures empathy in a way that simple third person narration or the first-person viewpoint of pretty much anyone else involved could not. This is especially so since the 2008 confession of Morton Sobell who laid to rest any doubts as to Julius Rosenberg's guilt.

The Book of Daniel might be anchored in a single event, but it is a sweeping elegy for post-war America, a wide-angle lens pointed outwards from its molten core. Doctorow rides roughshod over the national self-image of innocence and righteousness that prevailed at the time without ever getting caught up in the almost irrelevant question of whether the Isaacson (read Rosenberg) couple were actually spies. Guilt, he rightly suggests, is a red herring. Or, at the very least, the Isaacsons' guilt pales next to the guilt of a justice system that could allow this travesty to occur. In Doctorow's mind, injustice of this magnitude ripples outward, destroying all in its wake. The futility of the Isaacsons' naive faith in a system blinded by paranoia is shift-around-in-your-seat uncomfortable to witness. And the nigh-pathetic irony of the egalitarian ideologue is not lost. As the executioner flicks the switch we see also the the destruction of children, friends and pretty much anyone associated with the Isaacsons but, more importantly, the crumbling of that glimmering tower called America.

There is so much to love about The Book of Daniel, from Doctorow's exquisite prose (it is probably the most readable literary novel I've ever encountered) to the book's depth and heart. Even the minor asides are symphonic. This is the kind of historical fiction that any other author could merely hope to write, taking a story so familiar, so deeply entrenched in the national psyche, and making it fresh and humane. I could go on, but your time would be much better spent tracking down a copy from your local independent bookstore and letting the master speak for himself.


Post a Comment