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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Book of Daniel (1971) E.L. Doctorow

Book Review
The Book of Daniel (1971)
 E.L. Doctorow

  E.L. Doctorow is an author I firmly associate with the homes of my parents and their friends in the Bay Area in the 1980's and 90's.  I remember seeing numerous copies of his 1989 novel, Billy Bathgate, to the point where I even tried to read it (I was in junior high) unsuccessfully.  Doctorow had a hugely successful career in the United States, both in terms of art and commerce, with his films forming the basis for numerous films and a long-running musical (Ragtime).   He didn't travel particularly well.  If you look at the numerous literary prizes he won- listed on his Wikipedia page-  you will see that they are all domestic awards.

  The Book of Daniel wasn't his first novel, but it was his break through hit.  Written while the author was teaching at the just created UC Irvine, The Book of Daniel is a fictionalized version of the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the impact it has on their two children, Daniel- the narrator- and his younger sister, Susan.  The Rosenbergs were famously tried and executed by the United States government for espionage meant to help the Soviet Union obtain nuclear weapons.  They became iconic figures of the 1960's, martyrs to the "new left", even though they themselves were about as "old left" as they come.

  Doctorow plays many "post modern" type tricks during The Book of Daniel- you've got switching between first and third person narration within the same paragraph, the introduction of invented academic texts about the historical events of the book, transgressive dirty talk about sex.   There is also a lot of very specific talk about the trial of the parents.  It was detailed to the point where it began to evoke my "this is too close to work" response that I often get when watching television shows about the criminal justice system.

  The Book of Daniel is one of the first novels about the "1960's" the way we understand that period today.   The post-modern/modernist techniques don't detract from the conventional narrative of a child trying to come to terms with the "sins" of the father.  Doctorow's writing is undeniably strong and evokes the era, and the era before the 1960's in cinematic color.

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