Augustine of Hippo
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
City of God opens a vast window on a range of religious, scientific, historic, and aesthetic concerns. E. L. Doctorow’s novel promises to strike readers as a wonderfully unusual novel with a liberating narrative technique that breaks many of the so-called “rules” of the novel and also echoes and riffs on styles and themes from a wide range of literary and historical antecedents. The works of such disparate authors as John Dos Passos, Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin, Tony Kushner, Elie Wiesel, and Jorge Luis Borges might be discussed alongside City of God with fruitful results.
A novel as thematically playful, nonlinear, and wide-ranging as City of God invites a similarly atypical approach to discussing it in a reading group. Hardly a narrative suitable for chapter-by-chapter analyses and succinct plot summaries, Doctorow’s novel concerns itself centrally with the kind of capital “M” mysteries (the natures of God, creation, and human destiny) that finally defy satisfying solutions. Casting readers as apprenticing detectives to the Reverend Dr. Thomas Pemberton, the self-anointed Divinity Detective, City of God allows for a lot of intellectual “play” and features what Doctorow has called a “kitchen sink” prose style. The book conflates all sorts of literary forms and genres and serves up a stew of fragmented biographical sketches, Homeric verse poems, prayers, and jazz-like improvisations on pop standards, all of which orbit around the narrative’s central issue—the mystery of the stolen cross.
The plot of City of God, such as it is, will likely seem confusing to readers because it is so fragmented and jittery, and because the narrative, especially at the outset, rarely supplies us with the standard clues to establish who is speaking and what the situation is. A useful metaphor which could be discussed and assigned to the novel is that of an intricate puzzle, the assembly of which is up to the reading group to perform together. Perhaps more than any book since Joyce’s Ulysses, City of God all but defies critical distillation or reduction. And like Ulysses, City of God is more than anything a work of skilled mimesis, mirroring in prose the nature of one New York writer’s consciousness and concerns at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
ABOUT E. L. DOCTOROW
Named for Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow occupies a central position in the history of American literature. On a shortlist that might also include Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow is generally considered to be among the most talented, ambitious, and admired novelists of the second half of the twentieth century. Long celebrated for his vivid evocations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American life (particularly New York life), Doctorow has received the National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howell Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal.
Doctorow was born in New York City on January 6, 1931, and, like the novelist Everett in City of God, attended the Bronx High School of Science. After graduating with honors from Kenyon College in 1952, he did graduate work at Columbia University and served in the U.S. Army, which stationed him in Germany. In 1954, he married Helen Setzer. They have three children. Doctorow was senior editor for New American Library from 1959 to 1964 and then served as editor in chief at Dial Press until 1969. Since then, he has devoted his time to writing and teaching. He holds the Glucksman Chair in American Letters at New York University and over the years has taught at several institutions, including Yale University Drama School, Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of California, Irvine.
With The Book of Daniel, his third novel, Doctorow emerged as an important American novelist with a strongly political bent. A fictional retelling of the notorious Rosenberg spy case, the novel deftly evokes the complex anxieties of Cold War America, shuttling back and forth in time from the 1950s, when Paul and Roselle Isaacson are convicted and electrocuted, to the late 1960s, when their troubled son, Daniel, a grad student at Columbia, must deal with the consequences of his unusual birthright. The Book of Daniel was adapted in 1983 into the film, Daniel, starring Timothy Hutton and directed by Sidney Lumet. Four years after The Book of Daniel came Ragtime, a dazzling reimagining of the United States at the dawn of the twentieth century by means of a plot that, like City of God, ingeniously brings together real-life figures—such as Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, and Emma Goldman—with an array of invented characters. Ragtime was named one of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century by the editorial board of the Modern Library and was adapted into a successful Broadway musical in 1998.
Widely acclaimed for the beauty of his prose, his innovative narratives, his feel for atmospherics, and above all for his talent for evoking the past in a way that makes it at once mysterious and familiar, Doctorow has created one of the most substantial bodies of work of any living American writer.
“The greatest American novel of the past 50 years . . . reading City of God restores one’s faith in literature.”
“Sparkles with Mr. Doctorow’s rich language and ideas.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“City of God blooms with a humor and a humanity that carries triumphant as intelligent a novel as one might hope to find these days.” —Los Angeles Times
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