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Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow

This… novel….was very hard to read. At least… partly due to the… author’s…aggravating use of a certain…typographical… oddity.

If I’m exaggerating with that first paragraph it’s not by much. The Waterworks is littered with ellipsis. It’s very unsettling and wears out its intended effect through tremendous overuse.

The Waterworks is an attempt at a very appealing crossover work of fiction. The basic idea seems to be to transpose the popular Victorian Gothic style of works like those of Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker into the New York City of the time (I have also seen Wilkie Collins mentioned as a comparison in reviews, but as I have yet to read The Moonstone I’ll demur from pretending to see the similarities myself.) Thus you wind up with a glorified ghost story set amidst the corruption of the Tweed Ring in 1871 New York.

The story is told in retrospect, in that exasperating style mimicked above, by a newspaper editor named McIlvaine, whose best freelance writer has gone missing under mysterious circumstances. This freelance, Martin Pemberton, was the disinherited son of a wealthy war profiteer. Martin disappears shortly after relating to McIlvaine and others the strange experience of sighting his supposedly dead father riding in a public omnibus.

The rest of this interminable novel follows McIlvaine’s efforts both to find Martin and expose the conspiracy behind the apparent resurrection of his father. Unfortunately, Mr. Doctorow’s novel lacks the suspense of the Victorian novels he so self-consciously apes, and the plot of The Waterworks languishes as the rather predictable plot unfolds ever so slowly. (Honestly, it seems as though half of this book consists purely in wrapping up the main plot. The last fifty pages are intolerable in this regard.)

Of the wild implausibility or lack of spookiness of the final conspiracy I will not say much. But they are certainly not discoveries of any such wit or imagination as to justify even slightly the tedium experienced by the reader of this book. This was a severe disappointment coming from Mr. Doctorow, whose Ragtime is rightly held as a modern classic. A novel like The Waterworks is almost enough to call into question the general assessment of Mr. Doctorow’s literary genius.

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