World’s Fair by E.L. Doctorow

Edgar Lawrence “E. L.” Doctorow (January 6, 1931 – July 21, 2015, was an American author, editor, and professor, best known for his works of historical fiction. Many regard him as one of the most important American novelists of the 20th century. His novels The Book of Daniel (1971) and Ragtime (1975) may be better known, but to gain a flavour of his writing I would recommend his 1985 book World’s Fair.

The novel opens in the early 1930s, during the Depression – a time of Flash Gordon comics, early phonographs, and whispered dread about Hitler – and ends with the astonishing radio-controlled cars and space age structures of the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. The narrator has the same first name as Doctorow, Edgar. His father, mother and brother are, like Doctorow’s, respectively called Dave, Rose and Donald. Recollections about his family dog being run over or the magic of the music shop where Dave works, are so clear and powerfully felt that it seems they must be autobiographical. But Doctorow also adds a smattering of chapters in the voices of Rose, Dave, Donald and his aunt Frances. These are addressed to the narrator himself, in the manner an elderly relative might respond to some quizzing about a family legend. When Donald disagrees with Edgar about how physically harsh their father was, it justifies Doctorow’s decision to write the book as fiction. The additional voices also help give a little more of a sense of the hardship of the era. Rose, for example, reminds us of the lack of conveniences at the period: how time-consuming it was to live in a period before washing machines, before refrigeration; when clothes had to be scrubbed on a washboard and all meals had to be made from scratch.

Doctorow’s recollections have the eloquence of adulthood, but always take immense care to find a child’s perspective on the world and keep to a child’s interests. “I had the distinct impression that death was Jewish,” he tells us. We completely believe Edgar “did not like Humpty Dumpty” for the reason that the egg-human “lacked all manly definition and was so irrevocably fragile”, although, as a seven year-old, he probably couldn’t have put it into words that way. Even when Edgar talks of the deterioration of his parents’ marriage, and describes his father as “a free soul tethered, by a generous improvidence not terribly or shrewdly mindful of itself, to the imperial soul of an attractive woman” he makes it believable that, somewhere deep in his rapidly developing mind, a precocious, bright pubescent might have made such an observation.

Later Edgar helps his brother’s teenage band by calling out a new member who is only pretending that he can play saxophone. When reading about the elusive, often invisible comic superhero The Shadow, he works out that a clever crook could kill him by simply keeping his figure pressed down on the trigger of a Tommy gun and spinning around 360 degrees. But the knowledge that we are dealing with such an advanced pre-pubescent never erodes the sweet sense of awe and innocence that is present from Edgar’s first sentence right up to the finale, at the World’s Fair itself: “a quiet world of tomorrow” with “everyone all dressed up”. In Doctorow’s best other novels there is a sense of being in a whiskery, erudite presence that has spent a goodly amount of time weighing the world. World’s Fair might not walk the bold narrative line that they do, but very surefootedly, sentence by sentence, it creates something arguably even more memorable: a voice that is wise, comforting, open-eyed with wonder and authentic all at the same time. Give Doctorow a try. It might open up a rich vein of pleasure.


384 pages in Fawcett

First published 1985

ISBN 978-0449212370


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E.L. Doctorow

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