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Asking the Big Questions

By Madison Smartt Bell

Sunday, March 5, 2000; Page X04


By E.L Doctorow

Random House. 272 pp. $25

Reviewed by Madison Smartt Bell

The problem of evil and the God who permits it has been with us at least since the time of Job. In his new novel, City of God, E.L. Doctorow manages to engage with most of its important 20th-century manifestations. Previous Doctorow works (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate) have targeted some important issues of American society and history, but this time the author has set his sights on the ordering principles of the universe and the nature of the God who created it . . . if there is one.

City of God is cast in the form of a novelist's notebook: the record of a writer at work. Everett, the writer in question, is in what seems to be the early stages of composition. The text is all his, but it contains, along with his personal ruminations, numerous first-person narratives by others, including historical figures like Einstein, Wittgenstein and Frank Sinatra; acquaintances whom Everett is trying to develop into characters; and, perhaps most important, a close friend of Everett's named Thomas Pemberton, an Anglican priest in a crisis of faith.

Pemberton's Anglican superiors consider the priest to be stuck in '60s ideology, and his congregation dwindles to the point where his downtown New York City church is closed, but before that happens, someone steals the crucifix from the altar, and Pemberton sets out to trace it. Mysteriously, the crucifix reappears on the roof of a building where a young Jewish couple, Joshua and Sarah, are operating an esoteric, exploratory synagogue, trying to redefine their faith.

Though he never learns who did it or why, Pemberton is inclined to interpret the placement of the crucifix as a sign. He has long been preoccupied with the problem of evil and the impotence of his own church, if not religion in general, in the secular world. What kind of God would build and operate a world in which horrendous evil and its agents prosper marvelously -- and go unpunished more often than not? The two young rabbis, Joshua and Sarah, have a direct connection to this issue, for Sarah's father is a Holocaust survivor, and his report of his experience (purportedly in conversation with Sarah though actually composed by Everett) is one of the book's more important first-person narratives.

In the early pages of the book, the various narrators and narratives are not very strongly differentiated by style or voice, but sorting them out is worth the trouble. Doctorow, in the person of Everett, sets the narratives of his fictionalized Einstein and Wittgenstein on a parallel course with Pemberton's vexatious and mostly despairing pilgrimage. "So where is the truth to be found?" Pemberton asks in a sermon (drafted by Everett). "My friends, I ask you, is God a story? Can we, each of us examining our faith -- I mean its pure center, not its consolations, not its habits, not its ritual sacraments -- can we believe any more in the heart of our faith that God is our story of Him?" Meanwhile, Everett, pondering the destructive outcome of the expanding universe, writes in his own voice, "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."

Hard questions indeed. Everett tries answering them in Einstein's voice, knowing that "Einstein was one physicist who lived quite easily with the concept of a Creator." Everett asks his Einstein to reconcile his idea of God with evils such as the Holocaust, which he narrowly evaded. The best "Einstein" can come up with is reference to the physical laws that hold the solar system together: Let "the bending of starlight" be "a first sacrament." Following a somewhat similar course, Pemberton arrives at the "anthropic principle," which holds that whatever design created the universe insisted on conditions propitious for human existence. In other words, life goes on.

These are not tremendously forceful answers to the extremely thorny questions posed. But Pemberton won't give up on the idea of God. He declares, "If we are to remake ourselves, we must remake you, Lord." To that, one may raise several objections: 1) Yahweh certainly would not like it; 2) the idea of a human-constructed Godhead is not new; 3) a human-constructed deity is not likely to solve the problem of evil that also has human origins.

In its fragmentary rendition, City of God resembles no other novel so much as it does Diary of a Writer, a nonfiction work Dostoyevsky published serially from 1873 to 1881, and in which he commented on current events, floated ideas and sketches for works of fiction that he might or might not later achieve, and wrestled before his audience with the important issues of his time. Dostoevsky used his diary as a passage into his last great novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

Doctorow hasn't matched the latter achievement in his present work. It could even be argued that the writer is trying to pass off a bundle of unrealized ideas and loose narrative threads as a novel. More likely though, the unraveling form of City of God is an intentional part of its message: that the perennial human inquiry into the source of evil and the nature of God (if there is one) cannot be completed by human agency. In its deliberate incompleteness, City of God is the sort of philosophical novel that our times demand. If Doctorow cannot answer the questions he asks, who could? -- and he has asked them as cogently and as stubbornly as Job.

Madison Smartt Bell's "Master of the Crossroads," the second volume of his trilogy about the Haitian revolution, will be published this fall.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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