Author: E. L. Doctorow
Publication Date: 1975
How I Found It: 100 Best Novels
Date Completed: 1/7/16
Summary: A unique blend of history and fiction, Ragtime offers the disjointed story of an unnamed family and their experiences with the events and personalities of the early 20th century.
What I Thought: The family depicted in Ragtime is referred to as "Mother's Younger Brother," "Father," "the boy," etc. Normally the lack of names would drive me crazy, but for some reason it doesn't bother me here. Perhaps because it's only the main family or because so many "famous" people are sprinkled through and named. Alongside the no-name protagonists are sprinkled personalities such as Harry Houdini and Booker T. Washington.
Their story also intertwines with that of a young African-American couple and their illegitimate son as well as a socialist immigrant and his daughter hailing from Eastern Europe. Doctorow, particularly at the beginning of the book, sets each chapter focused on a specific character or topic. As the chapter moves along, he winds himself into another character or topic and then sets the next chapter around that person or thing. I really liked that style; it kept me guessing at the end of each chapter what the next would be about and how far Doctorow would reach to tie them together. The second half of the book was more linear and traditional in its story-telling approach, but no less engaging.
Even beyond this particular technique, I found I enjoyed Doctorow's writing style. It was crude, whimsical, fluid...all at the same time. It's rather hard to describe. Certainly, the later publication of this book (written in the 1970s, as opposed to the much earlier origin of many books on the 100 Best list) contributes greatly to Doctorow's unique style. It makes him stand out so much from his compatriots on the Modern Library list and makes me long for more diversity on the list. If only each book of the 100 presented such a unique offering.
It's easy to see why Ragtime made waves upon its publication. It's not too heavy, but carries weighty issues with a grace and panache not often seen in books this "literary." Doctorow did a wonderful job presenting the characters and cultural complexities of the early 20th century with a distinctly modern feel to them, ultimately making them more palatable and relatable to the modern reader. I have a feeling I'll look back on this novel as one of the 100 Best I genuinely enjoyed and appreciated.
Will I Re-Read: Maybe
A Reduced Review: Unique from its 100 Best Novels compatriots, I enjoyed the refreshing style of Doctorow and his depictions of early 20th century cultural complexities.