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by E.L Doctorow

Category: Fiction / General
236 pages; ISBN: 0-330-28849-0

Rating: 6/10  (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Erik Einmo


Harry Houdini, the greatest escape artist of all time, walks stark naked up six flights of stairs to Murderers` Row, to be incarcerated as a supreme test of his power...In a cell opposite, Harry Thaw, eccentric heir to a railway fortune who shot architect Stanford White, finishes a six course dinner with champagne...Sigmund Freud is on the loose at Coney Island, riding the scenic railway and taking a boat through the Tunnel of Love with Carl Jung... Historical figures become part of fictional events, and fictional characters participate in real history.

Ragtime is a tale of America during it`s transition into the modern era. Following all the important personalities of the age, and two seemingly insignificant families in their attempt to fit into the new society beeing built.

E.L Doctorow is most certainly an excellent writer, his words flowing smoothly, yet still hectically, constantly changing rythm to suit the the action. Hectical rythm and unexpected changes are the characteristic feature of Ragtime music, and thus the choice of title.

This is a book that drags you headlong into a hectical era of American history, causing you to forget about the things around you, while you read until the eyes are sore, and then some more. Plots and subplots weave into each other, changing places, and going back again. Comic incidents, hysterical coincidents, and moving fates. It deals with the transition from the old to the new in America`s 1920`s. Ford model-T, moving pictures, railways, international conglomerate industries, immigration, racism. All the trends, and movements of the era are described, the main issue, however, is how these rapid and fundamental changes influence `the little man` and his family.

We follow a wasp middle-class suburb family, where the father is successful in his trade, and the mother is as a `good housewife` should be. We also follow a family of jewish immigrants, and the troubles they encounter in `the new world`.

The only problem is that this book was written more than 50 years after the conclusion of this period, and one is left with a feeling of it all beeing artificial, and somewhat constructed. It seems as though the autour is trying to include more elements than there really is room for in a novel of this format. Instead of recreating the period realistically it seems to me as though Doctorow has compressed all the characteristics of the time, and crammed it into one (a little too small) package.

Another unusual feature of this novel, is the interaction of historical characters such as Ford, Houdini, and J.P Morgan, with fictional characters such as Father, Mother, and the son of the family. This in my opinion gives the novel more force as a comedy, than a serious novel. The focus is grabbed by the comic happenings, and diverted from the real theme of the book.

To sum up, Ragtime is an entertaining, funny, intriguing book, but it seems as though it lacks a bit in realism, however, it makes up for this with the great readability and the fabulous language Doctorow employs. It conveys the fate of the men and women of an important time in American (indeed western) history. But after finishing the last page, I was left with a feeling of emptyness, wondering if I had missed the real point of the novel, since it didn`t give me anything at all...


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