E.L. Doctorow's new collection of short stories, All the Time in the World, starts out well with a very interesting preface comparing novel writing and short story writing, then wobbles, then gains strength, a lot of it.
Basically Doctorow sees novels as evolutionary and stories as situational. In stories he sees characters in conflict with the world somehow...and there is a continuous path to resolution...or not. Novels? Well, this isn't one of his novels, so let's pass on that.
The first story three or four stories are propositions. Here's a proposition: A man who doesn't have a good relationship with his wife comes home one night and decides that instead of going in the front door he'll hide in the garage attic. He stays there for months, become feral at night, feeding out of garbage cans, deteriorates, monitors his wife and daughters without revealing himself, and only reappears, as himself again, when his wife has one of her old boyfriends to dinner. In short: silly. He may hate his wife, but does he hate his daughters? Why does he do this? How interesting is the underside of the suburbs? Etc., etc.
In the second story a man parks an ancient Ford Falcon outside a house in which he once lived and spooks the current owners. Again, just something odd that Doctorow plays with.
We move on through an arranged bride episode to a stay in a cult camp where the cult leader takes off with the narrator's wife...and everyone's money.
So...blah. BUT deep in the book, with a story called Jolene: A life, about an abused girl, Doctorow really hits his stride. This is a moving tale that ends with the very suggestive proposition that her life might make a good graphic novel. In fact, it would.
Then there are acerbic, provocative "experimental" stories like "The Writer in the Family," "The Hunter," and the title story, "All the Time in the World," that get at the watery quality of life,how it slips through your fingers, is never specific and trustworthy because the present is a passing fiction. These are robust bursts of Doctorow letting loose. I won't press this point but they seem to refer in some measure to the philosopher Wittgenstein--reality is that which is.
It's easy to bungle that kind of writing in fictional form, but Doctorow is a formidable writer. He can be Whitmanesque, he can be city smart, he can write in tighter and tighter loops like a first-class ice skater spinning at speeds beyond belief.
I haven't read his novel Billy Bathgate, but there is one story in the collection called "LINER NOTES:The Songs of Billy Bathgate" that foreshadows the interesting adventures in thought and language that mark the last third of the book. It's not much of a story, but sometimes strong writing is enough.
These stories, Doctorow notes, were written over a number of years. Some have been included in a previous collection. I do not think that as a book, All the Time in the World, is successful except, perhaps, as a way of marketing and remarketing his work. That said, a handful of stories here are special.
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