Cover image for City of God : a novel
Title:
City of God : a novel
Author:
Doctorow, E. L., 1931-2015.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, 2000.
Physical Description:
272 pages ; 25 cm
Language:
English
Geographic Term:
ISBN:
9780679447832
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

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.


Author Notes

E. L. (Edgar Lawrence) Doctorow was born on January 6, 1931, in the Bronx, New York. He received an A.B. in philosophy in 1952 from Kenyon College and did graduate work at Columbia University. He served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1953-1955.

He began his career as a script reader for CBS Television and Columbia Pictures and as a senior editor for the New American Library. He was editor-in-chief for Dial Press from 1964 to 1969, where he also served as vice president and publisher in his last year on staff. It was at this time that he decided to write full time.

He wrote novels, short stories, essays, and a play. His debut novel, Welcome to Hard Times, was published in 1960 and was adapted into a film in 1967. His other works include, Loon Lake, The Waterworks, The March, Homer and Langley, and Andrew's Brain. He won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1986 for World's Fair and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1976 for Ragtime, which was adapted into a film in 1981 and a Broadway musical in 1998. Billy Bathgate received the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal in 1990. The Book of Daniel and Billy Bathgate were also adapted into films. He received the 2013 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for his outstanding achievement in fiction writing. He died of complications from lung cancer on July 21, 2015 at the age of 84.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

"The mind considering itself--I shudder; it is too vast, a space without dimension," writes Doctorow, in his new novel, touted as a major work. It's all about a writer working through his ideas, and, indeed, considering his own mind. And like the writer's journal, this novel is propelled by reflections on the universal concerns of living--the qualities of childhood memory, the nature of God, and, particularly, the ever-changing state of the cosmos. The work is peppered with invocations to the "Lord," "Christ, "Jesus," and so forth either by the writer or the characters, real and imagined, in his works-in-progress. Mixed in with Doctorow's philosophical ruminations, there are stories, most centrally two love triangles. One is melodramatic, on the order of a Patricia Highsmith psychological thriller; the other involves two rabbis and a Catholic priest, which includes a story about a runner in a Jewish ghetto during World War II. The latter love story takes over as the writer delves deeper and deeper into that plot about a cross being removed from a Catholic church and planted atop the Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism. The whole Christian-Jewish subplot is a rumination on the historic relationship between Jews and Christians and an indictment of power that must overcome by subjugating everything in its sphere, which amounts to "the accelerating disaster of human history." In this process of finding something to write about, the writer also puzzles out the form of his work. Is it to be a novel or a movie? In exploring the movie angle, there are passages on popular songs, such as "Stardust," "Dancing in the Dark," and "Shine on Harvest Moon." Tradition versus Reform Judaism. Tradition versus modernity. Pre-millennium versus post-millennium. Oh, where and how shall we proceed? Well, the runner in the Jewish ghetto is awfully compelling, but perhaps that ground was too well traveled. An interesting angle on the travails of the modern writer. --Bonnie Smothers


Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Who, what, and where is God? Inventing a writing style, an ambiance, and literally a logic of his own, Doctorow diligently answers this question in his most courageous novel yet. The main plot, which involves the disappearance of a brass cross from an Episcopal Church in Manhattan and its mysterious reappearance on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, is only a fragment of a picture that gets bigger and more complex toward the end. "This is my laboratory, here, in my skull," writes the narrator, who literally looks into the contents of his own mind as he attempts to write. (This is a novel about writing a novel.) As the narrator ranges from the absurdity of religion to the absurdity of life in New York, seemingly no thought or chronology is denied him; Doctorow's particular application of stream-of-consciousness technique would make Virginia Woolf proud. Retaining the memorable sensitivity of The Book of Daniel and the witty perceptiveness of Ragtime, City of God is everything Doctorow is recognized for and more. This rare mixture of facts and imagination, past and present, dialog and description, and poetry and scrutiny is absolutely essential reading. Only one objection: Why should this admirable literary quest even be labeled as fiction when it purposely defies all categorization? [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/99.]--Mirela Roncevic, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

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. -At dinner last night, code name Moira. After having seen her over the course of a year or two and having spoken to her only briefly, always with the same sign within myself, I have come to recognize some heightened degree of attention, or a momentary tightness in the chest, perhaps, or a kind of, oddly, nonsexual arousal, that usually gives way in a moment to a sense of loss, to a glimpse of my own probably thrown away life, or more likely of the resistant character of life itself in refusing to be realized as it should be ... I understood as I found myself her dinner partner why, finally, it was worthwhile to endure a social life in this crowd. She wears no makeup, goes unjeweled, and arrives habitually underdressed in the simplest of outfits for an evening, her hair almost too casually pinned or arranged, as if hastily done up at the last minute for whatever black-tie dinner she has been dragged to by her husband. Her quiet mien is what I noticed the first time I met her-as if she were thinking of something else, as if she is somewhere else in all our distinguished surroundings. Because she did not demand attention and was apparently without a profession of her own, she could seem entirely ordinary among the knockout women around her. Yet she was always the object of their not quite disguisable admiration. A slender, long-waisted figure. Fine cheekbones and dark brown eyes. The mouth is generous, the complexion an even ecru paleness that, unblemished by any variation, seems dispensed over her face as if by lighting. This Slavic evenness, particularly at her forehead under the pinned slant of hair, may account at least in part for the reigning calmness I have always felt from her. She nodded, smiled, with a clear direct look into my eyes, and took her place at the table with that quietness of being, the settledness of her that I find so alluring. Things went well. Let me entertain you.... I spoke my lines trippingly on the tongue. She was responsive, appreciative in her quiet way. On my third glass of Bordeaux, I thought, under cover of the surrounding conversations, I should take my chances. My confession drew from her an appreciative and noncommittal merriment. But then color rose to her cheeks and she stopped laughing and glanced for a moment at her husband, who sat at the next table. She picked up her fork and with lowered eyes attended to her dinner. Characteristically, her blouse had fallen open at the unsecured top button. It was apparent she wore nothing underneath. Yet I found it impossible to imagine her having an affair, and grew gloomy and even a bit ashamed of myself. I wondered bitterly if she elevated the moral nature of every man around her. But then, when dessert was about to be served, the men were instructed to consult the verso of their name cards and move to a new table. I was seated next to a woman TV journalist who expressed strong political views at dinner though never on the screen, and I was not listening, and feeling sodden and miserable, when I looked back and found ... Moira ... staring at me with a solemn intensity that verged on anger. She will meet me for lunch up near the museum and then we'll look at the Monets. -And everything flying away from everything else for fifteen or so billion years, affinities are established, sidereal liaisons, and the stars slowly drift around one another into rotating star groups or galaxies, and in great monumental motions the galaxies even more slowly convene in clusters, which clusters in turn distribute themselves in linear fashion, a great chain or string of superclusters billions of light-years on end. And in all this stately vast rush of cosmosity, a small and obscure accident occurs, a chance array of carbon and nitrogen atoms that fuse into molecular existence as a single cell, a speck of organic corruption, and, sacre bleu, we have the first entity in the universe with a will of its own. Message from the Father: -Everett@earthlink. net Hi, the answers to your questions, in order: the Book of Common Prayer; surplice; clerical collar with red shirt; in direct address, Father, in indirect, the Reverend Soandso (a bishop would be the Right Reverend); my man was Tillich, though some would stick me with Jim Pike. And the stolen cross was brass, eight feet high. You are making me nervous, Everett. Godbless, Pem -Heist This afternoon in Battery Park. Warm day, people out. Soft autumn breeze like a woman blowing in my ear. Rock doves everywhere aswoop, the grit of the city in their wings. Behind me the financial skyline of lower Manhattan sunlit into an island cathedral, a religioplex. And I come upon this peddler of watches, fellow with dreadlocks, a big smile. Standing tall in his purple chorister's robe. His sacral presence not diminished by the new white Nikes on his feet. "Don't need windin, take em in de showerbat, everyting proof, got diamuns 'n such, right time all de time." A boat appears, phantomlike, from the glare of the oil-slicked bay: the Ellis Island ferry. I will always watch boats. She swings around, her three decks jammed to the rails. Sideswipes bulkhead for contemptuous New York landing. Oof. Pilings groan, crack like gunfire. Man on the promenade thinks it's him they're after, breaks into a run. Tourists down the gangplank thundering. Cameras, camcorders, and stupefied children slung from their shoulders. Lord, there is something so exhausted about the NY waterfront, as if the smell of the sea were oil, as if boats were buses, as if all heaven were a garage hung with girlie calendars, the months to come already leafed and fingered in black grease. But I went back to the peddler in the choir robe and said I liked the look. Told him I'd give him a dollar if he'd let me see the label. The smile dissolves. "You crazy, mon?" Lifts his tray of watches out of reach: "Get away, you got no business wit me." Looking left and right as he says it. I was in mufti-jeans, leather jacket over plaid shirt over T-shirt. Absent cruciform ID. And then later on my walk, at Astor Place, where they put out their goods on the sidewalk: three of the purple choir robes neatly folded and stacked on a plastic shower curtain. I picked one and turned back the neck and there was the label, Churchpew Crafts, and the laundry mark from Mr. Chung. The peddler, a solemn young mestizo with that bowl of black hair they have, wanted ten dollars each. I thought that was reasonable. They come over from Senegal, or up from the Caribbean, or from Lima, San Salvador, Oaxaca, they find a piece of sidewalk and go to work. The world's poor lapping our shores, like the rising of the global warmed sea. I remember how, on the way to Machu Picchu, I stopped in Cuzco and listened to the street bands. I was told when I found my camera missing that I could buy it back the next morning in the market street behind the cathedral. Merciful heavens, I was pissed. But the fences were these shyly smiling women of Cuzco in their woven ponchos of red and ocher. They wore black derbies and carried their babies wrapped to their backs ... and with Anglos rummaging the stalls as if searching for their lost dead, how, my Lord Jesus, could I not accept the justice of the situation? As I did at Astor Place in the shadow of the great mansarded brownstone voluminous Cooper Union people's college with the birds flying up from the square. A block east, on St. Marks, a thrift shop had the altar candlesticks that were lifted along with the robes. Twenty-five dollars the pair. While I was at it, I bought half a dozen used paperback detective novels. To learn the trade. I'm lying, Lord. I just read the damn things when I'm depressed. The paperback detective he speaks to me. His rod and his gaff they comfort me. And his world is circumscribed and dependable in its punishments, which is more than I can say for Yours. I know You are on this screen with me. If Thomas Pemberton, B.D., is losing his life, he's losing it here, to his watchful God. Not just over my shoulder do I presumptively locate You, or in the Anglican starch of my collar, or in the rectory walls, or in the coolness of the chapel stone that frames the door, but in the blinking cursor ... -We made our plans standing in front of one of the big blue-green paintings of water lilies. It is a matter of when she can get away. She has two young children. There is a nanny, but everything is so scheduled. We had not touched, and still did not as we came out of the Met and walked down the steps and I hailed a cab for her. Her glance at me as she got in was almost mournful, a moment of declared trust that I felt as a blow to the heart. It was what I wanted and had applied myself to getting, but once given, was instantly transformed into her dependence, as if I had been sworn to someone in a secret marriage whose terms and responsibilities had not been defined. As the cab drove off I wanted to run after it and tell her it was all a mistake, that she had misunderstood me. Later, I could only think how lovely she was, what a powerful recognition there was between us, I couldn't remember having felt an attraction so strong, so clean, and rather than being on the brink of an affair, I imagined that I might at last find my salvation in an authentic life with this woman. She lives in some genuine state of integrity almost beyond belief, a woman of unstudied grace, with none of the coarse ideologies of the time adhered to her. Excerpted from City of God by E. L. Doctorow All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.