Friday, May 20, 2011

Reading: Prophetic Prose

Last night I finished a very pleasant few days reading E. L. Doctorow’s collection, Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories. All six of the stories were well worth reading, but it was the title novella, Lives of the Poets, that I found to be particularly compelling. The first-person narrator of the piece is a writer. He has been successful enough to own a large house “in the woods” as well as a summer house. In addition, he keeps a studio in lower Manhattan. This studio is his sanctum sanctorum, from which his wife of nearly two decades is banned. The narrator muses on many things, but primarily on interpersonal relationships amongst the artsy-fartsy set of which he is a prominent member. We learn that our author is in love with a woman-not-his-wife, but with whom he also cannot quite connect. It seems that none of the persons whose love-lives are sketched in his thoughts can connect. In addition, American society-at-large is plunging into nihilistic decadence all around him.

Consider as exemplary of the entire work this passage excerpted from near the very end of the novella:

How do I feel? I don’t care anymore. Maybe like that poet in Yeats who lies down to die on the king’s doorstep because he’s been kicked out of the ruling circle. Yeah, that’s what this place is, that’s what I’m doing here, and if I die, let the curse be on their heads. What else can this mean except that I’ve been deprived of my ancient right to matter? Yes, you mothers, I ... a mere man of words, will sit once more in the councils of state or a dire desolation will erupt from the sky, drift like a fire-filled fog over the World Trade Center, glut the streets of SoHo with its sulfurous effulgence, shriek through every cracked window, stop the singing voice of every living soul, and make of your diversified investment portfolio a useless thing.

Now consider that this book was published in 1984.