Half-truths, Half-inventions – Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

I totally didn’t know what to expect from this. My edition has the Statue of Liberty on its cover, so it’s not without reason that I’d suspect this is an American novel set in New York. I use the term American very loosely here. I only mean that it’s about America’s past, although the novel didn’t entirely take place in that country. Various characters flew out to Europe and the Middle East during those times when the world was on the brink of war.

These persons are not your ordinary characters. They are prominent ones, and some of them include Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, and Booker T. Washington. The others, I didn’t recognize them. Blame it on my lack of knowledge about world history and current events. I suspect though that every named character in this novel must have been someone who made a contribution to the shaping of world history.

And there are the unnamed characters who are simply called Father, Mother, Younger Brother, Little Girl, et al. They are nameless and yet they’ve been able to come across the lives of well-known personalities as if they were just daily trifles that they have to deal with. Reading about them interacting with such familiar names makes one wonder which is closer to the truth: history or fiction?

Why do you suppose an idea which had currency in every age and civilization of mankind disappears in modern times? Because only in the age of science have these men and their wisdom dropped from view. I’ll tell you why: The rise of mechanistic science, of Newton and Descartes, was a great conspiracy, a great devilish conspiracy to destroy our apprehension of reality and our awareness of the transcendentally gifted among us. But they are with us today nevertheless. They are with us in every age. They come back, you see? They come back!

Ragtime is a historical fiction that must have entailed a lot of research. I think there’s more research than writing done when a novelist sits down and tinkers with this genre. I’m not a huge fan of it, but I can appreciate it. And this novel, which offers bits and pieces of historical info that you can come in handy, is loads of fun.

The first half, from my shady remembrance, is a tapestry of the private lives of some celebrated figures which I sampled above. There really isn’t a lot going on. It’s like visiting the opening night of a film festival and you can’t make up your mind. What am I going to watch? Oh, this looks good. How about this one? Hmm, very interesting.

And then somewhere at the middle, the plot focuses on Coalhouse Walker Jr., probably the only named character who comes exclusively from the world of fiction. He is a Negro pianist who’s trying to win the heart of Sarah, Mother’s housemaid. Coalhouse (what a name!) strikes me as a very austere person. He wears impeccable clothes, speaks like a well-educated man, a little on the reserved side, and very persistent.

So one day, he parks his car near the fire station, and when he comes back, he sees that his car is littered with shit, literally. This prank is pulled off by the firemen. White firemen. Does that ring a bell? Now, that is very American. Forgive me, but in a country where 90% (a rough guess) of the citizens are of one race, racism is not that rampant. Poverty and corruption are our country’s main issues, so let us not wonder why most of our internationally released films and books tend to deal with those subjects.

But I digress. So Coalhouse files a complaint and is disregarded. He tries to get the most competent lawyer but is turned down. He is told to just forget the maltreatment that he received from the whites, but he won’t. He is the very symbol of the angry Negro men who would extend their options to radical means to make the society understand that this world has changed, that it is no longer acceptable to make fun of other races, and that justice should prevail.

3 star - liked itSo he gets what he wants, but he suffers some losses along the way. And that is all that I remember of it.

I am pretty sure that there’s more to this novel, especially about the impacts that technology has on the individual and the society. These were discussed by no other than Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan. While hunting for a quote that would give you a feel of the narrative, I came across the chapters where they were having a conversation, and it felt like reading an essay.

It’s quite a hodge-podge, you see, and I’ve been working on this draft for days. I know the outcome is quite insubstantial, but if you have the time, go ahead and read the novel. The title may be a bit misleading; it’s less about ragtime music per se and more of the cultural and social issues during the proliferation of ragtime music. It’s a fun and surprising book. That much you can count from me.

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