For the first time, I've read a book purely because of its existence on the [b:1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die|2407757|1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die|Peter Boxall|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1265059356s/2407757.jpg|814053]
list. [b:Ragtime|3985551|Ragtime|E. L. Doctorow|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1363622361s/3985551.jpg|551195]
was the group read of the month, for January, in the accompanying Goodreads group
. I immediately ordered it from my local library, and miraculously it turned up, nearly three months later towards the end of March. Upon collecting it from the library, not only was it now two months after the group had finished reading the book, but I'd somehow ordered the large-print edition. Finally, a book I can read without my glasses, from the other end of the bus.Ragtime
is the story of early 20th Century America told through the experiences of an unnamed family. Rather unusually they remain deliberately unnamed throughout the whole novel. Instead they are referred to as Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother etc. – all capitalised as if they are proper names; as if they are their actual names. While these characters are central to the story, ultimately they also seem unimportant to the story. Really the story is about the America that is going on around them – the residual racism left after the official end of slavery some 50 years earlier; attitudes towards class and success as unions are being formed; as well as attitudes towards both gender and sexuality – and the characters that they interact with, and the characters that those people interact with too. While the family are at the centre, the real story is the ripples that flow out from them and in to them.
Father's trip to the North Pole and business interests are key to the changes in his relationships within the family unit. But certainly the defining moment for the family is the adoption of a young black baby and his depressed single-mother. When the child's father arrives on the scene – a very dapper and self-assured young man called Coalhouse Walker – the story gently shifts and becomes much more focussed on these few characters and their place within the racial tensions of the time. Additionally, Doctorow has cleverly woven a cast of 'real people' into this story as secondary characters. Many of the characters that the family interact with were real historical figures: including Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Emma Goldman. These all allow Doctorow to place the novel firmly in time, as well as to make the family themselves even less special and more every-family.
I was fascinated by Doctorow's writing style. His short, staccato sentences. Following on, one from another, quickly leading you into the prose. The casual smattering of historical figures that almost feel like side-stories in their own right. The often hilarious descriptions of both the sexual repression of the family and the comical description of the sexual antics of Mother's Younger Brother which seem to be written in the same style – one as an understated matter-of-fact occurrence, the other a fantastical, joyous, out-of-control event that ends with the best description of free-falling jism that I've ever read.