Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2010

City of God (2000), by E.L. Doctorow

I admit it: I had the wrong impression about E.L. Doctorow.  Last year when I read Homer and Langley, I thought the book was interesting because of its subject matter, but not much more. I thought it was a fairly straightforward narrative which made me think about how modern society cares for its eccentrics; it was well-written and I enjoyed reading it.  But I didn’t think there was anything particularly special about Doctorow’s writing, not at all…

So when I picked up City of God at the library, I had forgotten that it’s in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die  and I was expecting to find it an easy book to read.  Not so!  It’s a pastiche of different styles and ideas that I found more and more puzzling the more I read – but I really, really liked it.

This book is like impressionism in that the reader sees/hears more than is actually there because memory and imagination is triggered by fleeting glimpses of ideas and images.  Making sense of it is a creative act influenced by the reader’s knowledge of the events of the 20th century and the empathy felt for its victims.  I think readers also need to be open-minded about religion because Doctorow is playing with man’s needy search for meaning in a cosmos that (based on the world events he selects)  is positively malignant.

It starts off with The Big Bang, and the evolution of star matter, and the angst-ridden narrator tells us he’d like an astronomer to explain how they manage not to worry about what’s going on in the universe.  A page later there’s a bloke eyeing off an elegant lady called Moira. (Who’s with someone else, but we can tell that’s not going to matter).  On the next page we’re back with the stars; then there’s an email from a (The?) Heavenly Father, and then there’s a rather dispiriting account of the routine thefts that occur in New York City.  Back again to Moira, and then more of the Heist, and then a bit of criticism of astronomers as unfeeling and overly-intellectual.  And so on, you get the idea.  It’s writing that keeps you on your toes, and it’s no good trying to read it at night after a Christmas cocktail or two!

I’ve never been to New York, but perhaps it’s not necessary to go there to know that this text – which chops and changes and zaps about all over the place  – is a metaphor for the city itself in its frenetic energy and disconnectedness.  At the same time, I suspect that like any other city, New York has its share of people who are deeply connected in all kinds of odd and purposeful ways.  So it is in City of God when the minister of St Timothy’s Episcopal Church discovers that someone has nicked the big brass crucifix from behind the altar, and the rabbi from the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism discovers it on the roof.  This double sacrilege brings Christian and Jew together as they try to find out who dunnit, and why.  (No, it’s not a crime novel.  If anything, it could have been spoof of a crime novel, but it’s much much more than that. It’s not a romance either.)

There are delicious little surprises tucked away here and there.  The Rev Tom Pemberton (from St Tim’s) meets up with the author for a drink – and takes him to task for various inaccuracies.  The author protests that this is how fiction is written – but can’t resist nagging Pemberton into revealing the truth about why he got into trouble with the bishop. (This author is sometimes named as a man called Everett, but he seems much like Doctorow’s alter-ego).

The thread comprising the childhood of Yehoshua X in the ghetto of Ulm is sobering, yet uplifting.  Against all the odds, there is the sustained love between his parents; there is the unexpected heroism of the tailor.  And this orphaned boy is protected, as much as he can be in a society so abnormal.  He is not cherished, and does not expect to be, but he has moments of childlike pride in his usefulness, and he wants to live – no small accomplishment, under the circumstances.

The voice of this Holocaust survivor gives Doctorow the opportunity to ask the humanist question: what is it all for?  God, as we know, absented himself from Nazi Germany, not to mention from a variety of other evils and natural disasters over time.  I’ve never read a convincing argument for why this should be so: the Judeo-Christian ‘test of faith’/ ‘free will’/ ‘a community of sinners deserves punishment’ idea has never seemed to me to be an adequate justification for the extremes of human suffering inflicted by any deity.  To me it makes more sense to believe in the capricious gods of Ancient Greece and Rome – at least they seemed to be upfront about their lapses into malice and could occasionally be bought off with an offering or two.  So I rather liked Doctorow’s witty ‘final solution’ for Hitler:

If you believe God’s divine judgment [sic] and you countenance reincarnation, then it may be reasonably assumed that a certain bacterium living in the anus of a particularly ancient hatchet-fish at the bottom of the ocean is the recycled and fully sentient soul of Adolf Hitler glimmering miserably through the cloacal muck in which he is periodically bathed and nourished. (p105) 

Doctorow’s mastery of his characters’ voices is superb.  Yehoshua’s  story could so easily have become maudlin or self-pitying; Tim Pemberton has just the right tone of indignation and self-mockery.  But the postmodernist surprises keep coming: apparently factual narratives turn out to be  something quite different; characters are not who I thought they were; new characters turn up just to join in the cacophony (or so it seemed to me).

I don’t know why this works, but it does.  What seems like an author’s notebook of disparate pieces of writing comes together to  make the reader confront the strangeness of the modern world: wars foolish,cynical and noble; genocide and its righteous avengers; random acts of cruelty and kindness; the irrational attachment to religion.    Even the jazz in the bar has a point in the end, and some of the poetry is as compelling as anything in T.S. Eliot.  It was only the last part exploring the way that film is omnipresent in modern life that lost me completely; it reminded me of some movie trailer I saw in which film had transcended real life but I couldn’t really make sense of this part.

So, an interesting book to bring me almost to the end of the year.  What shall I choose to read for the last week of 2010?  I shall mull over my choices overnight…

Author: E.L. Doctorow
Title: City of God
Publisher:Little, Brown & Co, 2000
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Doctorow is just a name to me – yet another well-regarded author I have yet to discover for myself – so your review is very useful to me. This sounds the sort of book I enjoy but dare I add yet more to my TBR pile??? You touch on God and the Holocaust in your review – a fascinating question about where was God in the Holocaust which is the same one Jews have been asking since time immemorial by Jews who often wish they were NOT the chosen people!


  2. I’ve read a lot of E.L. Doctorow, but haven’t gotten to ‘City of God’. From your review, it appears I must.


    • Have you reviewed any, Tony? I just searched your blog but I couldn’t find any there…


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