Voices of America
E. L. Doctorow's masterful "Sweet Land Stories" explores the power and meaning of narrative
Sweet Land Stories
By E. L. Doctorow
Random House, 147 pp., $22.95
In a 1995 interview with the Kenyon Review, E. L. Doctorow described an experience that might be called ''ontological dislocation": ''My studio looks south over Soho to lower Manhattan. One night a heavy fog came down and covered the World Trade Center, covered all the big glass, steel buildings of lower Manhattan, then the Woolworth Building of the 1920s. The entire twentieth century was erased until all I could see was the ground-level city. . . . I was looking at the city Melville walked in. I was looking at the nineteenth century." If Doctorow felt he was looking at the 19th century, most readers of this passage today are likely to feel that he was also in some eerie way looking at the 21st.
That sense of dislocation could serve well as a metaphor for the experience of reading Doctorow's new book, ''Sweet Land Stories"; readers accustomed to the fragmented polyphonies of his novels will wonder what wormhole they have slipped into. Compared with the narrative discontinuities of Doctorow's most recent novel, ''City of God," the five stories that make up this collection are classically restrained.
We have crisp exposition: ''Mickey Holler was almost an orphan. His real father was in the state penitentiary with no parole for the same reason his mother was in the burial ground behind the First Baptist Church" (''Jolene: A Life"). We have inciting incident: ''And now she had gone and done this thing. She held it out to me all rolled up in a blanket" (''Baby Wilson"). We have rising action, climax, resolution. We have summaries of habitual action and transitions, all the souvenirs of literary realism removed from their display cases, wound up, and made to rattle across the tabletop. This is new territory for Doctorow, a fictional mode in which the chronologies are clear and each narrative is dominated by a single voice.
But this is not your father's realism. The machinery whirs from time to time. There are tics amid the talk. And these effects are intentional, left by a craftsman worried lest we mistake the artifact for life itself, ideology for nature. One such feature is stylistic. Dialogue in each of these stories remains undemarcated by quotation marks, suggesting that the stories occupy the internalized, subjective brain space of an ber-narrator, rather than the platform stage of externally dramatized objective reality.
The first story, ''A House on the Plains," serves as the book's overture. Set at the end of the 19th century but leering at the late 20th, it's as if ''Sister Carrie" and ''My Antonia" have met the Coen brothers. The expression of family values coincides with the business of the nation: ''Mama said one evening: We are an honest to goodness enterprise here, a functioning family better off than most in these parts, but we are running at a deficit, and if we don't have something in hand before winter the only resources will be the insurance I took out on the little ones." This story, told like three of the others by a first-person male narrator, introduces the power of representation, especially through written narrative, as the narrator and his mother rise socially and economically in a society that mistakes appearance for reality.
The four stories that follow are all set in contemporary America, the last in a specifically post-9/11 version. That story, ''Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden," introduces the book's hero, Molloy, an FBI agent who believes in truth and justice and approaches narrative warily: ''You let a hypothesis limit an investigation and you can get off on the wrong track," Molloy says, and it is this remark, combined with his acceptance of responsibility for people he does not know, that makes him the book's hero. The story begins, ''Special Agent B. W. Molloy, now retired, tells the following story: One morning the body of a child was found in the Rose Garden." Simple enough, and yet immediately we see the complications: two narrative frames -- and two time frames, as well. The fact that Molloy is ''now retired" mitigates some of the story's optimism, since his nemesis is not the criminal per se, but ''a President's man," a deputy assistant secretary of domestic policy. The job title alone offers Orwellian irony at its best, and the story spells out the historical revisionism such a deputy assistant secretary would author: ''There is no kid. There was no body in the Rose Garden. It never happened." Ultimately, this story, too, will turn on representation and its modes. For his part, Molloy will write two documents. The first is a ''letter of resignation," Doctorovian irony in crystal form. The second also contains an irony, one broader in scope that must not be given away here.
The one of these stories that's least like the others is ''Jolene: A Life," in which we are reminded, a bit too insistently, that ''orphan" may be made to rhyme with ''misfortune." Jolene is a tetherball batted back and forth, wound tighter and looser around the phallic pole of American culture. Even her identity as a survivor is predictable. What saves the story is its suggestion that Jolene's real weakness is her inability to author for herself a narrative that will make her life coherent and meaningful. The integrated self, in other words, may be a fiction, but it may also be the only alternative to the role of victim. The details of the story's resolution keep it tentative, but there are signs that Jolene has discovered and will appropriate narrative construction as a source of power. As the only story in the collection told in the third person and the only story whose protagonist is a woman, ''Jolene" fittingly appears at the book's center.
Doctorow's method is dialectic, however, and his next story, ''Walter John Harmon," immediately questions any conclusions we might have drawn about the moral or political value of narrative. The story worries the mind, much in the manner of Melville's ''Bartleby the Scrivener," with which it shares architectural metaphor and narrative technique. We have in hand a written document; although ostensibly about the saintly soul of the title, it casts far brighter light on the narrator himself. There is no space here to do justice to this amazing story, which, as a window into the culture and the mind that produced it, is as significant as Melville's 1853 masterpiece. Not accidentally, the narrators of both stories are lawyers, but where Melville's ends his with the cry, ''Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" Doctorow's narrator would cry, ''Ah, Bartleby! Ah, history." And that may be the real difference between the 19th and 21st centuries.