E. L. Doctorow. All the Time in the World.
E. L. Doctorow. All the Time in the World. New York. Random House. 2011. ISBN 9781400069637
Half the stories in All the Time in the World are newly published. As the title implies, they range in time and place. Most are set in a present time, kept nebulous and enclosed by few references to dated events or styles. As one might expect of E. L. Doctorow, most are placed in a generic urban or suburban environment. One enters "the world" of the stories, parallel but unconnected to our history-bound world.
Given his previous work tied to historical periods in Ragtime and World's Fair, one is not surprised to find "Wakefield" leading this collection. It directly references the famous Hawthorne story of a man who leaves his home and takes up residence on the next block for two decades, passing by his home until the day he decides to rejoin his wife, whereupon the story ends. Hawthorne chooses to present the story as a tale once heard (twice-told) and speculates on the states of mind of Wakefield and his wife from a removed point of view. That removal helps obscure the improbabilities of such a story. Doctorow tells the story from the point of view of the absent husband, who chooses to live in the garage attic, where he can spy on his family, until the moment it appears someone might take his place. While Doctorow revisits the constricted space of Hawthorne's story and the possibility of effacing one's identity within the community.
Doctorow favors first-person narration, characters enmeshed in a situation: an Episcopal priest in a failing church, buying back stolen items from street vendors; a convert to a religious community facing the problem of continuing it when its charismatic leader leaves; a suburban husband attempting to keep his marriage together, dealing with a homeless man who sits in his car in front of the house because he once lived there; a son's account of his mother's murderous con game; a son's Oedipal revenge. Other stories are third-person limited: a man brought into a scheme to marry a woman so she can emigrate to the States; an abused girl named Jolene whose life bears little resemblance to the pop ballad.
The best of Doctorow's stories build on a somewhat flat, detailed declarative style; his characters and narrators reveal more than they know or should know at any given moment. His best stories make an impression that lasts even when wrapped up too neatly in the last lines. The weakest, including the title story, fail when the focusing mind itself is supposed to be of major interest. E. L. Doctorow works best when he constructs good plots for his characters to inhabit. Thankfully, most of the stories in this collection have engaging plots.
W. M. Hagen
Oklahoma Baptist University