SAY ONE THING for E.L. Doctorow: Since the fabulously successful publication almost a decade ago of Ragtime, he has declined to rest on his laurels. Unlike other writers who have found profitable formulas and worked them for all they're worth, Doctorow has tried something new and venturesome each subsequent time out. He followed Ragtime with Drinks Before Dinner, a play, and then with Loon Lake, a novel written in part in a form of blank verse. Now, with Lives of the Poets, he turns his hand to the short story; the best to be said of it is that the results are mixed but the effort, at least, is to be admired.
The book consists of six quite short stories followed by a novella in which, according to the dust-jacket copy, "the imagined writer of the stories emerges from his work to depict his own mind unadorned, so to speak, by the strategies of fiction." How nice of the dust-jacket copywriter to tell us this, for there is little evidence of it in the book itself; without such warning it might go entirely unnoticed and, for that matter, unregretted. The evident purpose of this description of the book is to give some shape and coherence to it; but when an author has to rely on the dust jacket to do that for him, his book almost certainly is in trouble.
That is the case with Lives of the Poets. It is very well written, as all of Doctorow's work is, and the stories are not without their moments of interest. The first, "The Writer in the Family," is a satisfying glimpse at the life of a man who lived "the wrong life," as seen through the eyes of a son who is trying to understand that life. In the other five stories ostensibly written by Jonathan, the narrator of the novella, there is plenty of rich prose, a preoccupation with death and loss, a sense of estrangement and incompleteness.
These, if we follow the instructions given to us by the dust jacket, we then can see as among the themes that come to the surface in the musings of Jonathan, in "Lives of the Poets." He is a 50-year-old writer, apparently a rather successful one, who lives in suburban Connecticut with his wife and children but has just taken a small apartment in Manhattan. Supposedly it is to be a working apartment, but it also is where he proposes to entertain his lover, a woman many years his junior whom he imagines to be "my natural wife because I had never felt this with anyone, this sense of having arrived finally in my life."
Thus he finds himself inhabiting one of the "marriages of my generation," in which husband and wife are "neither married nor divorced but no longer entirely together." This has happened even though by all outward appearances his life should be happy. He is accomplished, recognized, prosperous, loved by his family: "Yet I call no one, I isolate myself, a man whose state of rest is inconsolability. I walk the streets feeling like a vagrant, I've got this stinging desolation in my eyes." He mopes around with other writers and artists, men and women whose lives are as disarranged as his if not more so, and hears tales of domestic warfare: "everything gets hung on the line as if we all live in some sort of marital tenement. Whatever happened to discretion? Where is pride? What has caused this decline in tact and duplicity?"
NOT MERELY ARE marriages falling apart all around him, but so is everything else. The city is a jungle; dinner-party guests swap accounts of their most recent muggings and describe dead bodies lying unattended on sidewalks. The doorman in Jonathan's apartment building greedily eyes his new alpaca coat and hints that the gift of it could assure a degree of protection. On the streets are the threatening young: "Stroll theater, people cruise for the impact of themselves, it's their art form. Raster blasting, mincing, prancing, slinking the display of themselves." It's all too much, but in Greenwich Village there's bound to be a cure for it:
"I can begin with lessons in the Alexander technique, a proven method for attaining awareness and physical reeducation and postural alignment, and then I can go buy the Bach Flower Remedies, look in on the Breathing Center, stop awhile at the Center for Jewish Meditation and Healing, sign up for some t'ai chi exercise in flowing motion for vitality and health, and if things still don't work out, I can submit myself to some deep-tissue manipulation by a qualified Rolfer. The Gurdjieff discussion group might come in handy, and if I need some companionship the Loving Brotherhood is there making 'the planet a place where it is safe for people to love each other.' Can't knock that. When I get some pots and ans I can do a little gourmet vegetarian cooking and, restored in my energy balance, go out then for a whack at some Functional Integration with the Feldenkrais Method. The Vedanta Society will bring all these things together for me, or else I can drop in to the local Tranquility Tank, where I can float in a body-temperature solution free from gravity. I feel better already."
That's funny stuff, and right on the money; Doctorow has pinned down just about every known nuance of life among the terminally self-indulgent, and he describes it in sharp, biting prose. He's equally good about the ominous side of Manhattan, the dirt and the noise and the everpresent threat of random violence; he is an acute social commentator, and when he puts that gift to work "Lives of the Poets" comes vigorously to life. But as an account of the writer at loose ends this novella scarcely holds a candle to Philip Roth's The Anatomy Lesson, a short novel that covers much the same territory in a similarly narcissistic manner but that crackles throughout with energy. "Lives of the Poets" goes only in fits and starts; it's intelligent and amusing, but essentially pointless. Can Doctorow be speaking for himself when Jonathan says, "each book has taken me further and further out so that the occasion itself is extenuated, no more than a weak distant signal from the home station, and even that may be fading"?