Saturday, October 13, 2012

World's Fair - E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow (1931-)

Ok, for starters let's begin with the descriptions of this book on the back cover:

"Marvelous...You shake your head in disbelief and ask yourself how he has managed to do it. An exotic adventure...E.L. Doctorow's most accomplished artistic performance to date."  -New York Times

"Exhilarating ... a thrilling work...World's Fair makes the reader see with a child's eyes the painful clarity of childhood." - Cosmopolitan

Hmm...I was definitely shaking my head in disbelief and it was at times painful...but I'm not sure I'm ready to become a Doctorow proselyte. Reading World's Fair felt like being introduced to a loquacious 9 year old boy who after a few pleasantries and the shy introductions sits down and wants to read me his 300 page journal that he started at age 1.

His first words to the reader are "Startled awake by the ammoniated mists, I am roused one instant from glutinous sleep to grieving awareness; I have done it again." Our protagonist presents himself as an asthmatic bed wetter, growing up in the Bronx in the 1930's. His family is poor, his parents relationship is perpetually fraught with tension and anxiety. His father is unreliable, barely able to provide for his young wife and two small boys. Yet, Edger can empathize with his father:

"I, a quieter  more passive daydreaming sort of child, understood my father with some sympathy, I feel now- some recognition of a free soul tethered, by a generous improvidence not terribly or shrewdly mindful of itself, to the imperial soul of an attractive woman."

For a 9 year old recounting the minutia of his life, the book is not entirely without a few beautiful prose, but they are written in the staccato of short sentences and awkward punctuation, there was never a moment when I became lost in Edgar's story or lost the feeling that he was sitting next to me requiring all my attention when I would rather be talking to his mother, although I can relate to his distaste for overly dramatized birthday parties:

"...a birthday party was a satire on children directed by their mothers, who hovered about, distributing Dixie Cups and glasses of milk while cooing in appreciation for the aesthetics of the event, the way the child was dressed and so on; and who set us upon one another in games of the most acute competition, so that we either cried in humiliation or punched each other to inflict pain."

Edgar, by age 9, had become obsessed with the World's Fair. His older brother went years before and the tales he brought back to regale young Edgar with became the fabric of his dreams. his family cannot afford the tickets, so he must quietly contrive a more creative approach to getting in. One day he sees an advertisement for a writing competition about what it truly means to be an American boy. He secretly submits his essay and then forgets about it as the summer days slowly creep by.

"The typical American Boy is not fearful of dangers. He should be able to go out into the country and drink raw milk...If he is Jewish he should say so. If he is anything he should say so when challenged...In music he appreciates both swing and symphony. In women he appreciates them all...He knows the value of a dollar. He looks death is the face."

One day, Edgar's friend Meg takes him to the Fair with her, Meg's mother works there and they can get in for free, his joy knows no bounds. They explore the fair together, each display being better than the last, they meet pygmies and giants and then finally at the end of the day, Edgar watches Meg's mother perform her swimming routine with Oscar the Amorous Octopus, which results in all the female swimmers, after a rough tussle with the Octopus losing their swim suits and being forced to swim around the tank, their nubile bodies glistening in the murky and yet strategically lit water. Edgar, watches Meg's mother and slowly he becomes aware of the facts of life. He has spent his short life wondering what the crucial secret was, "so carefully vouchsafed"...and here it has presented itself without his bidding, without any planning or calculation on his part, he had worried his whole life about the hidden details of life, and yet all he had to do was be in it, and it would instruct him and give him everything he needed.

This genre, the memoir of an egocentric little boy, is not my favorite, but I found myself pining away for the protagonist in Henry Roth's novel "Call it Sleep" which I hated at the time. Henry Roth managed to create an environment where although from the perspective of a small boy, was written intelligently. The protagonist, David, is aware of far more than the pecuniary concerns of his parents. Their problems are more visceral, their life is more gritty and destitute and his coming of age is awkward and at times heartbreaking. "Call it Sleep" while at the time made me want to administer my own ice pick lobotomy, in comparison was like a satisfying hearty steak dinner compared with the under-cooked runny oatmeal of World's Fair.

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