Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow, swirls through 1906 America with a breakneck stream-of-consciousness pace more frenetic than most historical fiction. A densely-constructed ensemble piece that alternates between fictional and real life figures of the age, the thoroughly modern novel amazed critics and readers alike upon its publication in 1975.
The book is modern in writing style and in terms of setting. That may sound strange for a story that takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, but this period of America, pre-World War One, encompasses a sense of extreme optimism. A can-do spirit that ranges from achieving rights for the working man to communicating with the dead.
The fictional characters we focus on offer a varied slice of 1906 life. Father, Mother, and Mother's Younger Brother—we never learn his name—are comfortable upstate New Yorkers looking for the best life possible amidst a rapidly changing world. They interact with others who operate outside of their cushy lifestyle.
There is Tateh, a widowed immigrant street artist who struggles to care for his young daughter. There is Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a talented Ragtime piano player who is wronged by a racist firehouse chief. His struggle grounds the second half of the novel.
Meanwhile, we bump into escape artist Harry Houdini, anarchist Emma Goldman, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and many other historical figures. This elevates the book to a star-studded historical ensemble, one both hilarious and tragic.
The characters are so convinced of their modernity, it makes one question whether we of the twenty-first century are really any more advanced. Sure, we have our gadgets and our understanding of people's civil rights has expanded, but where can we improve? The book raises such questions.
Lack of quotation marks and blocky paragraphs may make Doctorow's text distancing at first, but I found myself completely swept up in the story's pace. Ragtime has almost a cinematic quality. Imagine the camera whipping through the streets of New York City, capturing the pulse of a younger nation. For a novel to be able to offer that visual power is a rare achievement.