CITY OF GOD by E.L. Doctorow


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An intensely conceived study of the varieties of contemporary religious experience that teases the mind intriguingly while never quite fully becoming the fiction it aspires to be. The story begins in the fall of 1999, with the random notebook jottings of a writer seeking a fictional subject, meanwhile worrying the idea of the physical universe’s “profound, disastrous, hopeless infinitude,” and what this may imply about the indifference, malevolence, or perhaps nonexistence of God. A subject soon presents itself: a brass cross disappears from St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, then inexplicably turns up on the roof of the nearby Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism. The writer, Everett, makes the acquaintance of Episcopal priest Thomas Pemberton, a freethinking cleric distrusted by his superiors, with whom Everett exchanges life stories. The novel exfoliates ambitiously, as Pemberton bonds impulsively with the Synagogue’s Rabbi Joshua Gruen and his wife Sarah (herself a rabbi); then, following Joshua’s death during a “mission” to Europe, Thomas and Sarah fall in love, and Thomas begins the (literally) soul-searching process of converting to Judaism. Against this spare fictional framework, Doctorow (The Waterworks, 1994, etc.) counterpoints eloquently phrased and argued related “documents”; the story Sarah’s elderly father tells of his experience of the Holocaust; Everett’s re-creations (in free verse form) of his father’s and brother’s service in both world wars, and his own in Vietnam; his sardonic interpretations of the religious meaning implicit in American popular songs (such as “Me and My Shadow”), the avocation of birdwatching, and the culture of movies; and'in the boldest imaginative stroke'his invention of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s diary, which opposes to the Nazis’ destructive Weltanschauung an impassioned defense of the inquiring mind’s potential for creativity. City of God both is and isn’t a dramatization of the experience of questioning, losing, then partially regaining one’s faith. There’s something to pique and challenge the reader’s imagination on virtually every page. But, like the novel it most resembles (Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five), what it actually dramatizes is its own (failed but fascinating) attempt to organize its own teeming content into fictional form.

Pub Date: Feb. 17th, 2000
ISBN: 0-679-44783-0
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2000


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