In his workbook, a New York City novelist records the contents of his teeming brain--sketches for stories, accounts of his love affairs, riffs on the meanings of popular songs, ideas for movies, obsessions with cosmic processes. He is a virtual repository of the predominant ideas and historical disasters of the age. But now he has found a story he thinks may be-come his next novel: The large brass cross that hung behind the altar of St. Timothy's, a run-down Episco-pal church in lower Manhattan, has disappeared...and even more mysteriously reappeared on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, on the Upper West Side. The church's maverick rector and the young woman rabbi who leads the synagogue are trying to learn who committed this strange double act of desecration and why. Befriending them, the novelist finds that their struggles with their respective traditions are relevant to the case. Into his workbook go his taped interviews, insights, preliminary drafts...and as he joins the clerics in pursuit of the mystery, it broadens to implicate a large cast of vividly drawn characters--including scientists, war veterans, prelates, Holocaust survivors, cabinet members, theologians, New York Times reporters, filmmakers, and crooners--in what proves to be a quest for an authentic spirituality at the end of this tortured century.Daringly poised at the junction of the sacred and the profane, and filled with the sights and sounds of New York, this dazzlingly inventive masterwork emerges as the American novel readers have been thirsting for: a defining document of our times, a narrative of the twentieth century written for the twenty-first.
New York at the end of the 20th century--hardly St. Augustine's city of God--is the canvas on which Doctorow paints an impressionistic portrait of man's frail moral nature and the possibilities of redemption. Challenging and provocative, this rambling narrative is a mix of alternating voices that touch on such matters as theology, popular music, astronomy, physics and science, war, carnal love, the verisimilitude of film to life (and distortions thereof). The story is at first difficult to discern, because the abruptly changing voices are not identified. But the episodic selections prove to be passages in a notebook kept by a writer called Everett, who is searching for inspiration for a novel. The easiest thread to follow, since it ties together and finally illuminates the other voices, is Everett's interest in a mysterious theft. In the fall of 1999, the brass cross from the altar of an Episcopal church in the East Village is stolen--and later discovered on the roof of an alternative synogogue on the Upper West Side. Fr. Thomas Pemberton, the spiritually restless rector of St. Timothy's, finds a kindred soul in iconoclastic Rabbi Joshua Gruen, the leader of the Evolutionary Judaism congregation. Together they probe the validity of religion in a century that has fostered epic barbarism and bloodshed. In fugal counterpoint to their conversations, the rabbi's wife, Sarah Blumenthal, herself a rabbi, discloses the story of her father's ordeals during the Holocaust, in which he tells of a manuscript hidden in the ghetto. Ensuing events cause a gentle, grieving Sarah and an unmoored Pem, whose chronic despair, intellectual arrogance and religious skepticism have cost him his pulpit, to draw together in need and understanding. This is merely the scaffolding of a story that ranges from stark tragedy to absurdist comedy, that includes quotations from popular songs from the first three decades of this century as well as speculations on infinity, a scenario for a sadistic love affair, the observations of a bird watcher, a free verse account of a WWII air battle, a consideration of the scientific discoveries that unleashed methodical human extermination and marvelous progress, minibios of Albert Einstein and Frank Sinatra, and the tenets of Christian and Jewish liturgy. Despite the fractured structure, suspense intensifies as the various segments intersect. Doctorow's language is both lyric and bracing, a mix of elegant, precise wordplay and brash vernacular. In a masterwork of characterization, he depicts a gallery of characters (including, hilariously, a retired New York Times editor who becomes an avenging angel) with vivid economy. At once audacious and assured, this profound existential inquiry will surely be ranked as a brilliant mirror of our life and times. 7-city author tour. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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January 30, 2001
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Excerpt from City of God by E.L. Doctorow
So the theory has it that the universe expanded exponentially from a point, a singular space/time point, a moment/thing, some original particulate event or quantum substantive happenstance, to an extent that the word explosion is inadequate, though the theory is known as the Big Bang. What we are supposed to keep in mind, in our mind, is that the universe didn't burst out into pre-existent available space, it was the space that blew out, taking everything with it in a great expansive flowering, a silent flash into being in a second or two of the entire outrushing universe of gas and matter and darkness-light, a cosmic floop of nothing into the volume and chronology of spacetime. Okay?
And universal history since has seen a kind of evolution of star matter, of elemental dust, nebulae, burning, glowing, pulsing, everything flying away from everything else for the last fifteen or so billion years.
But what does it mean that the original singularity, or the singular originality, which included in its submicroscopic being all space, all time, that was to voluminously suddenly and monumentally erupt into concepts that we can understand, or learn-what does it mean to say that ... the universe did not blast into being through space but that space, itself a property of the universe, is what blasted out along with everything in it? What does it mean to say that space is what expanded, stretched, flowered? Into what? The universe expanding even now its galaxies of burning suns, dying stars, metallic monuments of stone, clouds of cosmic dust, must be filling ... something. If it is expanding it has perimeters, at present far beyond any ability of ours to measure. What do things look like just at the instant's action at the edge of the universe? What is just beyond that rushing, overwhelming parametric edge before it is overwhelmed? What is being overcome, filled, enlivened, lit? Or is there no edge, no border, but an infinite series of universes expanding into one another, all at the same time? So that the expanding expands futilely into itself, an infinitely convoluting dark matter of ghastly insensate endlessness, with no properties, no volume, no transformative elemental energies of light or force or pulsing quanta, all these being inventions of our own consciousness, and our consciousness, lacking volume and physical quality in itself, a project as finally mindless, cold, and inhuman as the universe of our illusion.
I would like to find an astronomer to talk to. I think how people numbed themselves to survive the camps. So do astronomers deaden themselves to the starry universe? I mean, seeing the universe as a job? (Not to exonerate the rest of us, who are given these painful intimations of the universal vastness and then go about our lives as if it is no more than an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History.) Does the average astronomer doing his daily work understand that beyond the celestial phenomena given to his study, the calculations of his radiometry, to say nothing of the obligated awe of his professional life, lies a truth so monumentally horrifying-this ultimate context of our striving, this conclusion of our historical intellects so hideous to contemplate-that even one's turn to God cannot alleviate the misery of such profound, disastrous, hopeless infinitude? That's my question. In fact if God is involved in this matter, these elemental facts, these apparent concepts, He is so fearsome as to be beyond any human entreaty for our solace, or comfort, or the redemption that would come of our being brought into His secret.