E.L. DOCTOROW comes down to breakfast at the Tabard Inn like the answer to his own question, the question every novelist asks: What would the world be like if I made it up, just made it up as I went along, history and likelihood and all, beautiful women, billionaires, forests and Mercedes Benzes.
He's about six feet tall with a trim gray beard, 51 years old, lives in New Rochelle and Sag Harbor and sometimes writes in a cabin in the Berkshires, alone, because it's easier for him to write "if there's absolutely nothing else to do."
What is it novelists do?
"Make it new," he says.
Loon Lake a high mountain retreat cratered as purely cold and clear in the mountains as water cupped in your hands.
That's from "Loon Lake," his current paperback best-seller hailed as innovative ("Would be regarded as 'experimental' if it weren't by the author of 'Ragtime' " -- The Washington Post). Sentences without commas, fragments repeated for effect.
"I always go for images," Doctorow says. Also from "Loon Lake":
I don't remember the name of this town, it was like a tree with just a branch or two left alive.
In "Ragtime," Doctorow took historical personages such as architect Stanford White and his lover, chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit and New York City Police Commissioner Rheinlander Waldo and banker J.P. Morgan and reinvented them, brought them back to life for his own purposes. Before that, in "The Book of Daniel," he constructed whole new lives for the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple executed as Communist spies.
In Doctorow, it's hard to tell what is history and what is imagination.
By the third grade Edgar Doctorow wanted to be a writer. That much is fact; imagine the effect. On a bus through the arctic New York streets (he imagined the cold to be arctic; later, when he went to the Arctic and found imagination correct, he was secretly disappointed) he found himself next to a burly man wearing a cap. The man had lost the heel on his heavy shoe, exposing a semicircle of nail points.
"What're you looking at, kid?" the burly man said as the bus passed 39th Street.
"Nothing," said Edgar. He was inventing a universe to accommodate the missing heel, shot off in the war, or bitten off by an elk, or lost scaling the fence at Alcatraz. He made the burly man a famous writer like himself, survivor of plane crashes, capable of violence but also of art. Edgar did the man's life over in his mind like a paperhanger working on an apartment released from rent control for the first time in a generation:
"In Spain the shoeshine boys sneak up under your table at the cafe' and rip them off with pliers," the burly man said. "Presently they commence to sell you a replacement. There is now in the town of Salamanca in the dusty cafe' of the plaza a boy with his face disfigured in the shape of that semicircle." With a swing of his foot, the burly man demonstrated.
Edgar, who preferred to make up the universe himself, said nothing.
At 48th Street, Ernest Hemingway got off the bus and went up the stairs to Maxwell Perkins' office to examine his royalty statements. He liked the story he had told the boy, so he told it to Perkins, too. Then he told it to the girls in the office, and they were impressed.
Sometime later Hemingway returned to Salamanca. A shoeshine boy stole his heel. The novelist kicked him in the face with the exposed nails of his boot.
The universe invented by novelists includes themselves. Fiction writers are "born liars," Doctorow has said. "But we are the only profession forced to admit it." What does it matter that Hemingway and Doctorow never really met?
At the height of his powers the novelist E.L. Doctorow mounted the podium at the National Press Club recently and spoke to the assembly in his honor.
He said that Leo Tolstoy, at the height of his powers, had quit writing novels for 20 years because he had lost faith in the ethics of his own talent. Novels were a waste of time, Tolstoy had decided. Better to pass out potatoes to the poor.
"Consider the passionate energy required of that loss of faith," Doctorow said. Despite Americans' longstanding weariness of didacticism in literature, despite the usefulness of Sam Goldwyn's crack that "if you want to send a message, go to Western Union," despite all that, American writers still "lack some rage of imagination."
American novelists, he said, have never really believed their art could change anything. American audiences have always demanded that the "political" and the "literary" be kept separate. We accept them together only in foreign writers, just as this administration will support a strike only if it happens to be in Poland (applause).
Yes, Doctorow said, Goldwyn was right. A writer must not set out to teach lessons directly, "ideas must always defer to the work."
And yet, there is today a lack of resonance in books. Ours is a voice of bits and pieces, an atomized voice. "Something more is demanded."
Then Doctorow talked about the neutron bomb, about the apocalypse, about "The Terrible Thing to Come." He said that "the current administration in Washington is marked by a curious lack of brain energy," and that America oftens seems to be a confederation of individual gluttons.
It was a finely honed argument, a call for imagination on the part of statesmen and citizens as well as novelists. That is, the audience was sure it was a finely honed call for something. Because Doctorow read from a manuscript for half an hour without looking up, nobody had precisely followed the argument. But you got the general idea.
"I am told I have to answer questions," Doctorow said.
"Is the novel dead, then?" somebody asked.
"The novel has always been dead," Doctorow said. "Every once in a while it comes back to life."
Presently a fellow in the back wearing a pink sports coat spoke up boldly, saying that there were a number of "one-book" authors roundabout nowadays, that publishers were ripping off readers with junk, and that he had enjoyed Doctorow's first book but frankly wasn't particularly hot about the rest of them, although "Ragtime" was okay, and . . .
"Is he from the CIA?" Doctorow asked. Laughter.
When the fellow struggled on, Doctorow added, "No -- the CIA wouldn't let them wear pink coats." More laughter.
"What do you think of the movie version of 'Ragtime?' " somebody called out.
Doctorow feigned discomfort. Ears grew toward him across the hall. The suspense became palpable. In the middle of the audience, Sam Goldwyn sat with Evelyn Nesbit on his lap, nibbling at a large cheese held to his teeth by an obsequious factotum. But now Goldwyn waved the cheese away and leaned forward expectantly.
"I think it is a pretty good picture inspired by one of the really great novels of our time," Doctorow said, to loud laughter.
"What'd he mean by that, Mr. Goldwyn?" Nesbit asked as Goldwyn helped her on with her coat.
"Same as like Hemingway when the studio changed the ending of his leopard movie, honey. He all the time after that referred to the property as 'The Snows of Darryl F. Zanuck.' "
In 1980, Ed Doctorow went to the Canadian Arctic to watch birds with Peter Mathiessen, naturalist and fellow novelist. It was the first time Doctorow had been to the Arctic, even though he had written about the Arctic in "Ragtime," in 1976. This did not seem backwards to Doctorow. He had always believed that what he was supposed to do as a novelist was to make it up. He was supposed to write about places he had never been, and people he was not like. He believed that you could lose your innocence in his business pretty easily, and for that reason he did not read other contemporary writers while he was writing. The effect of that was of a radio program in which another radio program drifted in, jamming the original signals. It was very cold in the Arctic, just as he had expected.
You didn't have to freeze to death to invent a white-frozen landscape. Why, anybody who had watched his mother defrost the Frigidaire . . .
In "Loon Lake," his hero is called Joe of Paterson, as in Paterson, N.J. Paterson, the town with only one T. Images of entropy, sludged rivers, gray rain. An entire image-history of a made-up man contained in the one word, the one-T word, "Paterson." E.L. Doctorow never lived in Paterson, never spent any time there. "Maybe I passed through there once," he said.
You can invent the universe.
The snow of the Canadian Arctic under Doctorow's feet was not flat and soft as in Central Park but rugged and hard, a great expanse of white broken only by the conning towers of nuclear submarines. But nevertheless the birds called to each other, and from below the sea-ice was thumped by whales.
Across the frozen snowscape, pushing his beard before him like a cart, came Leo Tolstoy. In his bag, Tolstoy had a bottle of Tolstoynitchkaya, which he opened, and offered to Doctorow, who took a deep draft.
The sunset was huge, it sat on the sky like a pink sombrero settling slowly over the eyes of the world. J.P. Morgan arrived, and Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman reclining on a dogsled. They talked about many things, and Doctorow was pleased. He was nodding off when Harry Houdini jabbed him in the ribs. "There's more," Houdini said.
Dropping by parachute from low-flying cargo planes, their skates illuminated by flares, came the entire Ice Follies cast, alighting in marvelous grace and in carefully prearranged routines. Applause scattered over the lonely ice, mixing with the hiss of sharpened runners carving supple turns.
Doctorow could not help but grin.
"I thought you would like it," said Joe of Paterson, his smile illuminated by the sparkle of his diamond stickpin.
Obviously it is not all strictly true. Obviously liberties have been taken. Obviously Doctorow will understand. He always thought you were supposed to make it up.
But it is true that in the Arctic there is a Loon Lake, and that Mathiessen took Doctorow to see it.
Professor Doctorow, in "Loon Lake" commas are missing and words permute one into another:
Come with me
Compute with me
Computerized she prints out me.
"They are phonetic connections," he explained over breakfast. "Small variations in words that make new words. It's a kind of microbit logic, as in computers." He is fascinated by computers because the study of computers is a study of the way the human mind works, and because computers are imagined by a human mind imagining itself and then inventing itself. Some of "Loon Lake" reads like a computer printout, which is no accident but a novelist going for a new image in language.
"It's one of many directions a novelist can go at this point to make it new. We can't write novels the way they did in the 19th century anymore. We have television now. There's a lot of jumping and cutting in 'Loon Lake,' which is meant to be free-associative, like TV when it goes from threatened wildlife to burning buildings to soap. We can accept staggering interruption now."
By the way, sir, they say that in private life you like parties are fun to be with one attractive woman in particular and I quote characterizes you as both a rogue and a pedant what about it question mark.
"A rogue and a pedant? She's wrong on both counts." However, he seems pleased. At parties they call him "Ed," he concedes, despite the distancing initials.
"I used the 'E.L.' because the people I'd admired did. D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster. Besides, people had enough trouble with the last name."
He is not much for spilling-it-all, doesn't like to do talk shows, doesn't go for book-promotion tours. He concedes to a liking for tennis and "quite a normal, middle-class life."
He used to make a living teaching writing (the advance for his first book, "Welcome to Hard Times," was $1,600). "Universities were very good to writers after the Second World War, but in the long run it's not right. The writers stop being writers and become academic politicians. You get the phenomenon of writer-teachers turning out other writer-teachers. That's why I'm not doing it anymore."
The tradition of the American novelist, rather, is more robust and personal; it is engaged with self and not society: "It's Hemingway killing himself. It's Hart Crane jumping off that ship. It's Fitzgerald or Faulkner and the drinking. We're egocentric in some way. Writing for us is some kind of athletic performance, some ultimate test of manhood or womanhood."
In "Loon Lake," his main character is attacked by dogs, recuperates in the mysterious mountain retreat of a billionaire, loves a cripple, steals a Mercedes Benz, witnesses the death by marathon copulation of a circus fat lady, is beaten nearly to death and accused of murder.
"Bang 'em up action, sure," Doctorow said, without apology. "My taste for that showed up quite early, in 'Welcome to Hard Times'. I didn't start off by writing an autobiographical story about a young man setting out to find himself or any of that stuff. I did a western. Right in the first chapter a guy rides in and destroys a whole town.
"People shouldn't be forced to read novels. People shouldn't think something is too good for them because it's 'literature.' Ideally, we should read novels with as little self-consciousness as we go to the movies."
He is working on a new novel and a new play. He doesn't talk about it. "I'm superstitious. Talking uses the same energy as writing."
Doctorow arrived at National Airport at 11 o'clock in the morning. He was tired and he wanted to get back to New Rochelle before the snow started. Most of the seats on the plane were empty as it hurtled down the runway and lurched into the air at a sharp angle that the novelist could feel in his stomach.
Doctorow was bored, so he filled up the empty seats with the Rockettes. They wore silver stockings and party hats. They were laughing and giggling and making such a fuss that the pilot unbuckled his seat belt and came out to see. He looked at Doctorow and smiled and tipped his cap. He always enjoyed it when there was a good novelist aboard. Otherwise flying out of National on Saturdays was the pits.
In the seats around him, Doctorow put Lenin, Trotsky, Marilyn Monroe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Conrad Hilton and Father Damien. They immediately got into a heated conversation. The seat next to him Doctorow left unoccupied so he could put his bag on it and have lots of room for his feet under the seat in front of him.
He settled back and grinned. He was a famous novelist who invented the world and it gave people pleasure and had made him rich. He was 51 and had no regrets.
"Hey, 'scuse me -- is this seat taken?"
Doctorow looked up. It was a big man in a pink sports jacket. Doctorow had to take his bag down and stuff it under the seat in front of him. Now there was no room left for his feet.
"I'll tell you the books I liked," the man said, sitting down heavily. "Your first book. Yeah. But in this 'Loon Lake,' I don't get where there's no commas. Now they made a movie of 'Ragtime,' right? What I don't get about the movie is the part where . . ."
Doctorow slouched down. The Rockettes seemed very far away, and he could not hear what Marilyn was saying to Trotsky so that Trotsky was turning beet red.
As a novelist, he could invent the world. All but the readers -- who had of course invented him.