Review: E.L. Doctorow’s ”The Book of Daniel”

by writereaderly

WARNING: Cover dysphoria!

WARNING: Cover dysphoria!

This is a skilled book and a tough, dark read. Daniel, in full-blown, po-mo, multi-generic multi-voiced style, relates the story of his Communist parents’ judicial persecution – leading to the death penalty by execution – in the late 1940s in Washington, D.C., and traces the impacts on himself and his family (wife Phyllis, baby Paul, sister Susan, adopted parents) some 20 years later. The political analysis is considered, sophisticated and astute; one recognises the parallel gap in contemporary fiction, although I suspect Richard Flanagan’s The Accidental Terrorist has the same aim. Strong characterisation: one has no doubt how messed-up these people are. Well-constructed. Difficult to read because the characters are awful, the story is brutal and violent (especially the sexual violence Daniel does to his wife), possibilities for salvation progressively eliminated. Not fun, but enlightening.

What I found most interesting – let’s be real here: most confronting, shaming – was that this story of the generational impacts of political violence detailed the traumas I’d only interacted with before in countries where it happens to poor, brown, foreign people, and then in a largely intellectual sense. It was elucidating to read of it happening to educated, white, English-speaking, first-worlders. It was, goddess forgive me, in some ways more real, more shocking. This was not a human rights case study. This was – despite being fiction – more to be feared: these things can’t happen in an “enlightened” Anglo-Saxon “democracy”, surely. But they do, and I ought to know much better.

Recommended. Most of us need these reminders.

Where it came from: MM’s special secret po-mo pile
Time and manner of reading: Assorted grim samples, culminating in a determined morning lie-in
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of/that: See above
Who I’d recommend it to: Readers in need of a political stiffening up, or a reminder of how fortunate one still is (so far…)
Also reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; The Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier