Publisher: Random House
Released: January 1, 1975
Published in 1975, Ragtime changed our very concept of what a novel could be. An extraordinary tapestry, Ragtime captures the spirit of America in the era between the turn of the century & the First World War. The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, NY, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. Almost magically, the line between fantasy & historical fact, between real & imaginary characters, disappears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud & Emiliano Zapata slip in & out of the tale, crossing paths with Doctorow's imagined family & other fictional characters, including an immigrant peddler & a ragtime musician from Harlem whose insistence on a point of justice drives him to revolutionary violence.
Saying that Ragtime isn’t a great book would probably be empirically wrong. I guess I just didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have done.
I find that books are generally either easy to read, or require a certain amount of concentration. This book fell between the two in that I found it very easy to read and to take in, but that it required a good deal of focus to actually appreciate. At one point I backtracked and re-read a bunch of chapters when I was in a more focused state of mind, finding that they worked much better the second time around.
The story of Ragtime is set primarily in New York, and for a good deal of the book the narrative skips around liberally between plots which predictably end up bumping into each other. The style of the storytelling seems to be set in stone throughout the book, while the tone still manages to vary, sometimes rather abruptly, between being deathly serious and emotional to being light and comical. This works really well, and is probably the reason the book can get away with visiting as many bases as it does without it seeming contrived, touching upon various flavours of politics, racism, love, poverty, desperation, and so on.
Unfortunately I felt that the book took more than it gave. Despite my best efforts I never became as immersed in it as I think I needed to be to really like it. Personally I found Ragtime to be well-written and perfectly ok, but that’s about it.