In his workbook, a New York City novelist records the contents of his teeming brain - sketches for stories, accounts of his love affairs, riffs on the meanings of popular songs, ideas for movies, obsessions with cosmic processes. He is a virtual repository of the predominant ideas and historical disasters of the age. But now he has found a story he thinks may become his next novel: The large brass cross that hung behind the altar of St. Timothy's, a run-down Episcopal church in lower Manhattan, has disappeared...and even more mysteriously reappeared on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, on the Upper West Side. The church's maverick rector and the young woman rabbi who leads the synagogue are trying to learn who committed this strange double act of desecration and why. Befriending them, the novelist finds that their struggles with their respective traditions are relevant to the case. Into his workbook go his taped interviews, insights, preliminary drafts...and as he joins the clerics in pursuit of the mystery, it broadens to implicate a large cast of vividly drawn characters - including scientists, war veterans, prelates, Holocaust survivors, cabinet members, theologians, New York Times reporters, filmmakers, and crooners - in what proves to be a quest for an authentic spirituality at the end of this tortured century.
Daringly poised at the junction of the sacred and the profane, and filled with the sights and sounds of New York, this dazzlingly inventive masterwork emerges as the American novel listeners have been thirsting for: a defining document of our times, a narrative of the 20th century written for the 21st.
This is a challenging book to review. It is unlike almost any I have read--and difficult to classify, though quite satisfying to listen to (after I began to grasp it's process, or non-process).
There is a rather light plot going on--a writer is committing ideas to notebooks--therefore, as we hear them, they lack the continuity of a novel--but seem to be the range of things that capture his attention, the scope of which are enormous. Then there is a story about a Christian church losing it's cross, and having it cruelly show up on the roof of a Jewish synagogue. This gives the sense that the entire book is meant to arouse notions of vexing theological questions, and Doctorow does not disappoint as he brings it to even cosmological questions.
It begins--in parallel with the Bible, with an explanation of one current belief about beginning of the universe, an expanded story about the Big Bang, and thereafter shifts among various ideas, verses, stories, that the writer would like to explore. The priest and the rabbis do some of the story telling, but as the book is not intended to simply be a novel with a linear plot, it is not always clear "who" is speaking--the writer, the other people or possibly the author himself. (It might be different if reading it--since there are sometimes breaks that make those things more clear).
However, not always being certain of whose consciousness is being expressed does not take away from the more important aspects, which seem to be a collection and expression of ideas and events (especially the Holocaust) that permeate the thinking around the latter part of the 20th century and the turn of the century (and still, for that matter). I believe it was originally published in 2000, so I'd say is quite appropriate in it's symbolic timing.
It is dazzling to listen to--I know I could listen many times and always find new things to hear and contemplate. This book defies an easy definition--as at one moment we are hearing about Einstein's ability to hold deeply religious and also scientific ideas in his mind simultaneously--while having a character (the priest) who seems unable to manage the religious ideas that he promotes to his congregation, so many doubts does he have.
I have not done justice to this book in my review--there are so many different aspects that one could comment upon. I will just say that it is fascinating--and though it is necessary to suspend the need for a book to have the typical movement from one point to another, it is quite something to sit back and listen to some of the ideas that are defining our time--in some contrast (implied if not stated) to those which shaped the thinking of others in history. It is a book that relies less on character development and mostly on the exposition of consciousness as it explores the broad and the miniscule in the universe from a theological, philosophical, even poetic point of view. I will have to say it has left an impact on me--and I know that I will listen again.
4 of 5 people found this review helpful
I listened to two hours of this book and there is no story. It seems just a collection of random sentences. It's disappointing because I have read and enjoyed all of the author's previous books. This one made no sense. It begins with a chapter about the beginnings of the universe, then goes on to a chapter about what I guess is the main theme and characters and then diverges from there. The author is a great writer but seems to be wandering all over the literary landscape. I very rarely do this, but I am returning the book to get a credit back.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful