86. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

Ragtime: A NovelUncomfortable Plot Summary: A man and woman find love despite the best efforts of early 20th century celebrities.

Year Published: 1975
Pages: 270

First Sentence: In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.

Ragtime is the second book (from the bottom) of The List that I've already read. I first encountered it in grade 12, on a list of possible selections to be used in formulating the thesis of an in-class essay. I guess the dust jacket on the edition at my old local library was interesting, so I ended up choosing Ragtime.

Unfortunately I couldn't make any sense of it. Fortunately, my second choice was Brave New World (COMING UP in five or so years).

Prior to revisiting the book, the only thing I remembered about it was Harry Houdini's presence. And of course my complete failure of understanding.

Alas, after my second reading, i.e. this one, I'm still at a loss for an interpretation.

On the surface it's very simple. There is a little boy's American family and a little girl's immigrant family. The little boy is a bit strange, and his family lives a sort of bleak early-suburban sort of life. On the other hand, the little girl's family struggles with extreme poverty. And then, in a nice combination of and contrast between personal and world history, there's a hit parade of early 20th century celebrities (e.g. Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit) who appear throughout with varying levels of influence on the families.

There's a lot of awesome stuff in this book, but I just can't find cohesiveness. In the early chapters it reads with the voice of an old-timey radio announcer listing the achievements of the last century's early decades. In that way it calls to mind both the resentment of progress in The Magnificent Ambersons and the vague pride of The Old Wives' Tale. However, despite being a lot sexier, Ragtime isn't nearly as satisfying as those books.

Also, the more of these books I read, the more I'd like to see a Canadian novel on The List. Ragtime ends around 1917, when the United States joined the Allies in World War I, whereas Canada had been at war, along with the rest of the British Empire, since 1914. (Another fun difference that makes me wish for a Canadian perspective: my grandparents on the farm didn't have running water or a telephone until the 1960s.) I haven't bothered to examine The List very closely for any Canadian authors, but I suspect that there aren't many, which is pretty tragic.

I've gotten off track, but it's Ragtime's fault. If I understood this novel at all, I'd have a better chance of writing something coherent about it.

Mother's Younger Brother was in love with Evelyn Nesbit. He had closely followed the scandal surrounding her name and had begun to reason that the death of her lover Stanford White and the imprisonment of her husband Harry K. Thaw left her in need of the attentions of a genteel middle-class young man with no money. He thought about her all the time.

A few professional alienists understood his importance, but to most of the public he appeared as some kind of German sexologist, an exponent of free love who used big words to talk about dirty things. At least a decade would have to pass before Freud would have his revenge and see his ideas begin to destroy sex in America forever.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand didn't seem to know who Houdini was. He congratulated him on the invention of the aeroplane.

Rating: 2/3 (meh)

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