Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Andrew Foster Altschul on The Book of Daniel

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail

Today's favorite book is from Andrew Foster Altschul, the author of the novels Lady Lazarus (2008) and Deus Ex Machina (2010). His short fiction and essays have appeared in Esquire, Ploughshares, McSweeney's, Fence, One Story, StoryQuarterly, and anthologies such as Best New American Voices and O. Henry Prize Stories. He is the books editor of The Rumpus and lives in San Francisco.

I’m always a little envious – and a little suspicious – of people who say they have a favorite novel. I mean, it’s fine to have, say, a favorite color, or a favorite sushi roll; but beyond that it’s so hard to narrow things down to “the one.” I have lots of favorite restaurants, depending on what kind of mood I’m in; maybe The Big Lebowski is my all-time favorite movie, but on another night Mulholland Drive would be just the thing; sometimes my favorite TV show is Six Feet Under, other times it’s The Wire, or The West Wing, or, hell, even Seinfeld.

Lots of novels have changed my life – as a writer and a human being – and they all feature powerful narrative voices, unconventional structures, and absolute confidence in their material. Absalom, Absalom!, The Satanic Verses, Infinite Jest, Beloved – these authors didn’t so much write their novels as engrave them, in a way that defies you to imagine a literary landscape in which they’d never existed.

But maybe the novel I come back to the most often, that continually yields up new joys and amazements, that moves me to grief, humility, wonder, and righteous anger, and that inspires me to push harder and deeper in my own work, is E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. The story of Daniel Isaacson, son of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, working-class Jews arrested, tried, and executed for espionage and treason in the early 1950s, The Book of Daniel closely mirrors the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – but not too closely, walking a very fine line that allows it to draw on a reader’s presumed knowledge of the history while simultaneously inventing characters and situations that allow Doctorow to explore not only the politics of the McCarthy era (and its bastard offspring, the 60s student-radical movement) but an entire American century of immigration, assimilation, disillusionment and suffering. It closely examines the idea of America – America’s idea of itself, its dearest principles and its regular failure to live up to them – an investigation as crucial in the age of waterboarding and extraordinary rendition as it was when poor Brooklyn Jews could be sacrificed on capitalism’s altar for the crime of believing in the rhetoric of a happier, fairer life. After reading the novel’s excruciating account of the Isaacsons’ lives and deaths – raised in tenements, excluded from Gentile society, scratching and clawing to get an education at City College of New York, fighting for their country in World War II, and finally being subjected to a legal proceeding for which words like “travesty” and “mockery” are insufficient – I read everything I could find about the Rosenbergs, and was frequently brought to tears at the undeniable evidence of my country’s failings, even its malice. It was maybe a year later that the World Trade Center was destroyed, maybe a week after that that I began to feel the rumblings of another terrible era being born and recalled Daniel’s prophetic and devastating indictment of America’s professed ideals: “If justice cannot be made to operate under the worst possible conditions of social hysteria, what does it matter how it operates at other times?”

For all its political relevance, though, what I love most about The Book of Daniel is the writing, Doctorow’s high-wire act of structural contortion, his ventriloquism, and the slippery point of view he employs to bring this troubled and troublesome character to life. The novel poses – sometimes – as Daniel’s memoir, or as his graduate thesis on radical politics, or as his case study, or his confession. He’s grown up, not surprisingly, into a complicated, shambling mess of self-loathing and rage, a rage which he takes out on everyone who loves him even while clinging to them desperately and poignantly in fear that they, too, will be taken from him without warning. His narration moves in and out of several time frames – his parents’ lives as young, poor, ambitious Jews swept up in Communist dreams of utopia; the unbearably painful period of their trial and executions; his own salad days as a 1960s Columbia University radical and incompetent husband; his sporadic but urgent attempts to find out: Why? – oscillating between an agonized first-person and an ironic, hypercritical third-person that inspires enormous empathy and pity by making clear the depths of Daniel’s fear and self-hatred. Despite the historical baggage, and Doctorow’s own obvious political sympathies, he somehow never allows our relationship to Daniel to be simple or sentimental; we feel empathy for Daniel’s suffering, and that of his parents and sister, and sympathy for his anger, his politics, his desperation to understand what happened, but the novel never stoops to pat justifications, never tries to explain the inexplicable. Were the Isaacsons guilty? And of what, exactly? And is there any guilt sufficient to justify what was done to them? Doctorow’s too smart and brave a writer to be snared in such literary irrelevancies, preferring instead to explore the connections between the personal and the political, the historical and the emotional, to distill all the self-contradictions and naiveties and ironies and cruelties of the “American Century” into one devastatingly brilliant character.

Fredric Jameson calls Doctorow “one of the few serious and innovative leftist novelists at work in the United States today.” And it would be silly to argue that The Book of Daniel, like Ragtime and Billy Bathgate and others, isn’t a political novel. But its refusal to reduce its subject matter to right and left (or right and wrong), or to upstage its painstakingly drawn characters with irresolvable arguments about what America is, or should be, are what elevate it above the level of artful polemic and into the realm of the literary masterpiece. Perhaps its most political gesture of all is its insistence that the individual – his pain, his confusion, his fear, his need – is more worthy of our concern than the great historical tides in which he may be swept up, or drowned, a position which makes Doctorow something much more important than a leftist. It makes him a writer.

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