City of God

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Novel by E. L. Doctorow, 2000

E. L. Doctorow's experimental, unconventional novel City of God displays a vast jumble of diversified materials that fill the mind of a movie scriptwriter, Everett, and are recorded in his workbook. Its contents include excursions into theology, psychology, and cosmology; fictional fragments; factual elements; direct quotations from important writers; other direct borrowings from outside sources; tributes to the City (New York); commentary on the writing of movie scripts and on old standard songs; and imaginary plots for movies. The tragedy of the Holocaust, described in personal terms, plays a major role in the book.

City of God has a discontinuous story line about a mysterious event in a small, progressive Jewish synagogue in Manhattan's Upper West Side and its consequences for the rabbinical couple who lead the congregation and the Episcopal clergyman, from a church in lower Manhattan, who becomes involved with them. The narrative elements are introduced randomly, often without proper identification. Moreover, Doctorow's scriptwriter changes names and locations of his three major characters and two houses of worship. It remains unclear as to whether Doctorow intended a meaningful story line or a set of notes for a movie-script plot.

The mystery concerns the astounding theft of the huge brass cross hanging behind the altar of Rev. Thomas Pemberton's Episcopal church and its incredible reappearance on the roof of the building that houses the progressive Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, led by Rabbi Joshua Gruen and his wife, Rabbi Sarah Blumenthal. The heist and its possible implications draw Pemberton to the couple, socially and emotionally. As they vainly continue to seek answers, Pemberton, whose commitment to his church's doctrines has been steadily eroding, begins to direct his commitment to Sarah and her brand of Judaism. As a very young victim-survivor of the Final Solution, Sarah's father kept a diary of the tribulations of the Jews in the Kovno ghetto, Lithuania. (He also discussed his experiences there with Sarah.) To trace this archival record to its source, Sarah's husband travels to Lithuania, where he believes the diary has been preserved. Before he can find and recover the valuable book, however, he is brutally murdered.

Pemberton takes the heist of the large cross from his church and its removal to the roof of the Evolutionary Judaism synagogue as a cryptic sign of something portentous. Having lost his church (which is now deconsecrated), he reassigns himself to hospice work on Roosevelt Island. He then goes to Moscow in search of the problematical ghetto diary, which apparently is no longer in Kovno. Finally, he gives up his own religious faith entirely, takes on Sarah's form of Judaism, marries her, and together they continue the mission of her synagogue.

As for the book's overall philosophical view, the drift of the contents of Everett's "teeming mind" is an evolutionary one. A good deal of his rumination is devoted to the big-bang theory and the expanding, ever-evolving universe. Also, the story line itself, through its major characters, points to the need for both Christianity and traditional Judaism to evolve into more progressive forms of religion; Pemberton—the real conscience of the book—seems to "hope that a revelation [is] evolving," and Sarah herself believes that even God is evolving. But the Holocaust material, which is not limited to Everett's transcription of what Sarah's father experienced and witnessed in the Kovno ghetto, remains "an ever-fixéd mark" (a phrase from Shakespeare's Sonnet 116), the most valuable portion of this grab bag of a book.

As memorable in its own way as Doctorow's extensive borrowing from Avraham Tory 's diary with its death-camp horrors, offered as selections from the personal record of Sarah's father, is Pemberton's sermon to his congregation, which leads to his leaving the church. He desires his congregation's opinions on Holocaust matters. What had the Holocaust done to their religion and to the "story of Christ Jesus"? Given the weak Christian response, was it only the Jewish theologians' problem? What behavioral change would have been a suitable Christian reaction to the Holocaust, drastic enough to assure them "of the holy truth" of their religion's story? Finally, utilizing the City in general as a high concept (though New York is dearest to him as its embodiment), Doctorow reveals a far-reaching philosophy about the City's breakdown tendencies (crime, disease, overgrowth, decay, and corruption) and barely hints at its possibilities for purification and renewal. His model apparently was St. Augustine's City of God from the early fifth century, which dichotomizes the earthly, worldly city and the divine eternal city of the worshipers of the true God. But Doctorow concludes only with an introduction to his hero and heroine—Sarah and Pemberton, the post-Holocaust, "vitally religious couple"—running the progressive synagogue that is already familiar to the reader.

—Samuel I. Bellman

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City of God

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