WORLD'S FAIR. By E.L. Doctorow. Random House. 288 pp. $17.95.
E.L. DOCTOROW's World's Fair is a story of growing-up, consisting almost entirely of Edgar Altschuler's recollections of his childhood in the Depression and told in a stripped down language that avoids bravura. The key to the novel's point of view lies in lines from Wordsworth that Doctorow quotes as his epigraph: "A raree-show is here,/ With children gathered round. . ." Through Edgar's eyes, the 1930s become a raree-show, a world more of spectacle than politics.
The main events in the novel are those that happen inside the family. The global history of the '30s intrudes, but only as it becomes part of the boy's own experience. Thus, the Depression means primarily a sequence of ever-smaller houses into which Edgar and his family move.
Lists are not literature, and Doctorow relies rather too often on catalogues of brand names as a sentimental short-cut to the past. In part, the nostalgic inventories that fill this novel derive from the biographical facts of the case: Doctorow shares a birth date and a first name with his main character, and his early years povide some of the story's material. World's Fair is Doctorow's fond portrait of the artist as a young man.
However, Doctorow's main purpose in creating a narrator of such extreme simplicity is not to evade history but to confront it more directly. Edgar is intended as a kind of emotional and moral perspective device, whose own innocence and transparency permit the facts he reports to speak powerfully for themselves. The history of the Depression and the slide into war becomes the education of a young boy, and the calamitous events of the 1930s are thereby rescued from familiarity and regain something of their outsize scale.
Doctorow has always been stronger as a maker of separate scenes than as a storyteller, and the autobiographical technique of World's Fair enables him to offer a series of episodes that reveal his thematic purposes. He invents some of the episodes, while he borrows others -- as in Ragtime and The Book of Daniel -- from history. When Edgar is 3, for example, his older brother builds an igloo in the backyard. At first, this is a mysterious, inviting habitat. After a week or two, it becomes dirty, misshapen, boring, and then it simply melts. Here is an emblem for the decay of childhood wonder, the transience of human achievement, and the futility of utopian dreams.
Several years later, in 1936, one of Edgar's most exalted moments occurs when he sees overhead the airship Hindenburg, silver and huge and mighty, tilted toward him "as if she was an enormous animal leaping from the sky in monumental slow motion." That same evening, while listening to The Answer Man and I Love a Mystery, Edgar hears the news bulletin that the Hindenburg has crashed at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The symbolic point is obvious: the effort to soar above the jumble of the world leads to catastrophe.
IT IS ABOVE ALL the 1939-1940 World's Fair itself that provides Doctorow with his most extended and resonant cluster of images. What had been a swamp in Flushing, Long Island -- "the valley of ashes" in Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- suddenly became the World of Tomorrow.
The Fair's inspirational symbolism was calculated and timely. The country was mired in the 10th year of the worst depression in its history. Despite the palliatives of the New Deal, recovery was not yet clearly in sight. The Fair inspired hope: like its sleek, modern buildings, America would rise out of stagnation and create a prosperous, carefree future. For a few hours at least, visitors could leave behind the dreariness of unemployment and class struggle and enter an ideal world of rational planning in which social problems found elegant solutions.
History, as usual, had other plans. Within a few months of the Fair's opening, Hitler invaded Poland and the dream of tomorrow became the nightmare of war and holocaust. In the fall of 1940, as America inched closer to entering the war, the World's Fair quietly closed, and demolition of its buildings commenced more or less immediately.
In short, simply to juxtapose the Fair and the war is to create a kind of morality play, in which history becomes cautionary myth. The irony in all this is intense, almost theatrical, and Doctorow finds it irresistible. As he manipulates Edgar's wide-eyed responses, Doctorow dramatizes both the power and the limits of illusions. The Fair is dazzling, but it is ersatz, and its World of Tomorrow is on a tiny scale. It has the charm and irrelevance of a toy.
When Edgar makes his second visit to the Fair, just before it closes down, he walks up to the Trylon and Perisphere, those famous linked symbols of the future. Edgar notices for the first time the gypsum board of which the two structures are made. In the sunlight, the whiteness of the Perisphere turns silver and "I could imagine it as the flank of a great airship. Then I could see where the paint was peeling." Here Doctorow knits several of his major motifs together: The Perisphere resembles both a great airship, such as the doomed Hindenburg, and the igloo Edgar had entered seven years earlier.
Near the end of the novel, Edgar watches a newsreel of the burial of the Time Capsule, that extraordinary attempt to communicate with the future by sealing up an assortment of the commonplace objects that filled the material world of 1939. Then, in the novel's final scenes, Edgar buries his own time capsule, stuffed with some of his own possessions: a Tom Mix Decoder badge, a handwritten four- page biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a harnica. The real time capsule, of course, is this novel, filled with the memorabilia of Doctorow's own childhood. It is his effort to decode, reconstruct and chronicle a personal version of the 1930s, that receding but tumultuous and decisive decade.