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"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Waterworks

The dog days are in full ascent here in Amherst. I feel overcome by a sweet inanition. Likewise, the blog is succumbing to drift. Behind the drift, I'm counting down the days till the semester shudders to life. So much to do! Class prep, that essay on Palmer. The MSA talk on Pound & Sobin. Etc. Still, this has been a very productive summer, and at the same time, a deeply relaxing one, the first in a long time.

Below is my review of E.L.Doctorow's The Waterworks. It originally ran in the now defunct LA View, in 1992, though I first read it in mss., with ELD's hand-written annotations in the margins, for Interscope Films. I fell in love with it and have taught it several times.


Like the moon, New York City holds one face to the light, the other in a perpetual umbra. In E. L. Doctorow’s eighth novel, The Waterworks, the hidden side of the city, its luna incognita, serves as both figure and ground in a dark moral fable about mortality, identity, hubris, and decay. Whether as a brooding meditation on the liquescent nature of history, with its endless shiftings and concealments, or as a modern valentine to New York City in the 1870s, The Waterworks complements Edith Wharton’s vision of the city in the same way that Blake’s Songs of Experience form a bitter refrain to his Songs of Innocence. This is the New York Garcia Lorca wrote about in 1929, a city in which the dawn has “four columns of mire and a hurricane of black pigeons,” where “furious swarming coins ...devour abandoned children.” Unleavened by Dickensian whimsy, it’s a harrowing trip through the sewers of Hell, lit by gas lamp.

Like Heinrich Schliemann excavating the successive layers of Troy’s ruins in search of Homer’s Ilium, Doctorow, beginning with Ragtime and continuing through World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate, has dug into the psychic strata of New York City to create a holographic portrait of American society that covers nearly 70 years. Only Gore Vidal has had the ambition to exceed that span of time in his series of novels chronicling the transition from Republic to Empire. But even Vidal, for all his prickly apostasy and intellectual acuity, can’t match Doctorow’s sheer lyrical largesse, which he lifts like a valedictory flare to illumine the names and faces of the past.

In his 1988 Paris Review interview, Doctorow described history not as “Newton’s perfect mechanical universe,” but as “constant sub-atomic chaos.” In such a state of turbulence causality breaks down. History is no longer a neatly condensed, monolithic tome, but a palimpsest scribbled over with innumerable, vying narratives, each underwritten by the protean stirrings of the unconscious self. The overweening assumption of modernity that is every civilization’s most “necessary illusion,” as Doctorow writes, melts down under such conditions, revealing “the skull beneath the skin.”

Early on in his career, Doctorow explored the use of the Western and science fiction genres in Welcome to Hard Times and Big As Life. Here he casts his story as a mystery, written in the ripping good-yarn style of Wilkie Collins and Robert Louis Stevenson. The effectiveness of this deliberately slight approach swiftly becomes apparent. Only a mystery could unravel the secret soul of the city. That soul, “roiling, twisting, turning over on itself, forming and reforming... like a blown cloud,” is the subject of the novel’s narrator-protagonist, a world-weary newspaper editor named Mcllvaine.

Six years after Appomattox, New York City is in the thrall of Boss Tweed and his venal ring of politicians, cops, and cronies. It’s an era, pointedly not unlike our own, of extraordinary avarice and brutality, of orphans and outcasts, ragpickers and street gangs, gamblers, grifters and bloodsuckers. Not a detail of this ghastly carnival goes unobserved by McIlvaine, who somehow retains an unsullied core of romantic idealism. The newsman’s all-inclusive eye is not as jocular, though, as that of Walt Whitman. In this New York, the Song of Myself has been drowned out by the infernal lament of the masses. In a twilit world where, “the air, in cinders, sifts through the filigree of fire escapes and telegraph wires,” the lonesome McIlvaine develops a paternal affection for one of his young, free-lance book critics, the moody and melodramatic Martin Pemberton.

Martin, who sees himself as a one-man bulwark against the swollen tide of Philistines overrunning the city, is the bitterly estranged son of the powerful Augustus Pemberton, a merchant who made his fortune in the illicit Caribbean slave trade. Not long after his father’s death, Martin bursts in on McIlvaine with the news that he has seen Augustus alive, being ferried about the city in a mysterious white coach. A week later, Martin disappears.

The hunt for his missing protégé leads McIlvaine from Martin’s self-possessed fiancé, Emily Tisdale, whose fetching combination of virtue and voluptuousness leave the veteran newsman smitten, to the more worldly sophistication of Augustus’s young widow, Sarah. But it’s finally with the help of Martin’s best friend, the quixotic painter Harry Wheelwright, whose Goyaesque portraits of mutilated Civil War veterans depict the dismemberment of the age, that McIlvaine and police detective Edmund Donne conduct a midnight exhumation of the older Pemberton’s grave. Its contents reveal the outlines of a monstrous conspiracy by which Augustus and his brilliant and amoral physician, Dr. Sartorius, have ensnared both Martin and the homeless children of the city.

Yet the psychic duel between the prodigal son and his sinister father occupies only the tale’s margins. At the center of the book’s superlative tension stands the conflict between Donne and Sartorius. Donne is the ratiocinative sleuth par excellence, a brother to Poe’s Auguste Dupin and a paragon of integrity; Sartorius, an arrogant and imposing medical genius after the manner of a Jules Verne villain, a man whose heinous scientific experiments foreshadow the Faustian acts of the Nazi death-camp doctors.

For McIlvaine, the scribe and witness, the pursuit is embodied in a haunting image out of a dream — a boy’s blue-skinned corpse, floating in the Croton Holding Reservoir at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, the future site of the New York Central Library. In this drowned “ceremony of innocence” our cherished mantras about progress and civilization founder until we feel, like McIlvaine, “the oppression of a universe of water, inside and out, over the dead and the living.” The cultural foundations of our society, Doctorow seems to imply, are written on water. More than that, though, our mechanistic conception of the world, as espoused by Sartorius, has set into motion an irreconcilable duality that can only end only with our destruction.

Walter Benjamin once observed, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Doctorow’s triumph is that he embraces both of these themes without abandoning the hope for transcendence, however slight it may be. At once a chilling morality play and a rhapsodic elegy to a moribund culture, The Waterworks displays all the flux and panoply of 1870’s New York, in the words of its ardent narrator, “forever encased and frozen, aglitter and God-stunned.”

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