Book Review: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

A quote by Scott Joplin, a famous ragtime musician, at the beginning of this novel, affirming that ragtime can never be played fast, gives away the style and tone.  It starts very slowly, with descriptions of the main characters, where they live, and what they do.  There is no inkling of a plot or hint that the book will be anything more than disparate descriptive passages for several chapters.  When interconnections between the characters interspersed with their encounters with some of the famous historical personages of the age begin to appear, these are the first indications that it will evolve into the semblance of a novel.  Somewhere along the way, about halfway through, the storyteller injects a fictional tale of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a black ragtime pianist who, after a personal affront by white bigots, stages a protest in J.P. Morgan’s personal museum.  It’s around there that the book begins to become interesting.

I realize that my comments here may be going against the grain, as many literary reviewers consider “Ragtime” a classic, and it has even won prestigious awards.  I can see why.  It is well-written, stylistically original, at least for the time in which it first appeared, and eventually, after hundreds of pages, develops into an interesting story.  But some of the literary pretensions are hard to get past.  The slow, slow start I already mentioned.  Then there are the long, long paragraphs that go on for pages, the lack of quotation marks to set apart the dialog, the lack of paragraph separations for different speakers, the abrupt switching of points of view in the middle of chapters and sometimes in the middle of paragraphs.  Granted, it’s the author’s prerogative what tools he wants to use to make his point, and I have even used most of these affectations myself in one story or another.  But that’s what they are:  affectations.  They do not make up for the glacially slow start to the story or the lack of coherence in the early chapters.

I had high hopes for this novel based on the cover descriptions and what I’d read about it previously.  I’ve been meaning to read some of Doctorow’s work for some time and have never gotten around to it until now.  Based on my perusing of other volumes of his that I haven’t yet read, the long paragraphs, lack of quotation marks, and so on seem to be a general style that he manifests in a number of his works.  I know he is very popular.  To each his own.  Now that I know the way he writes, I might even tackle another of his works in the future, but this time I will be prepared for a slow, slow ride at the beginning, like a roller coaster climbing an incline before a plunge, and a lack of stylistic norms that usually help readers along on their journeys through novels.

I don’t regret having read this novel.  It’s interesting enough if you accept it for what it is.  It’s kind of like sitting down with a venerable member of the family who first goes through an album of snapshots and describes each person in the pictures, and then after the album is finished tells you a long, rambling story about them interspersed with the history of the era.  In some ways this book reminded me of the movie “Forrest Gump,” in which the fictional character’s unlikely life circumstances intertwine with famous celebrities and famous moments in history.  It’s one way to recollect the past.

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