What would it be like for your family to fall apart when you were a child? What if everything you knew about your parents suddenly became untrue? What if you still can’t put the pieces together as an adult? E.L. Doctorow examines these questions, and many more, in The Book of Daniel, one of the finest postmodern novels I’ve read yet.
Daniel Lewin is a young man completing a doctoral thesis and along the way, he has to help his suicidal sister, Susan, all while struggling to adjust to being married to Phyllis, a significantly younger woman, and a father. Yet, we also find out that Daniel has been grafted onto his family. His birth name is Daniel Isaacson, the son of Paul and Rochelle (born Rachel or Rachele) Isaacson, two Leftist Communists who are arrested and then executed on charges of treason to the Soviet Union. The story may seem simple, but as we see through Daniel’s eyes, the truth, lies, and the fictions we want to believe all intermingle until it’s hard to tell what we really remember or what we choose to believe.
Doctorow draws on the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for this story, and he really captures the spirit of the 1950s and ’60s superbly. He creates the climate of paranoia present in McCarthy-era politics, and demonstrates how easy it can be to accuse someone of a crime, simply because their beliefs are different than yours.
The questions Daniel comes in with are answered and not answered simultaneously. Doctorow’s writing is sharp and evocative–he makes Daniel alternately a pitiable and despicable character, but one you find intriguing, nonetheless. It’s also a testament to his style that even though I knew how the story ended, I wanted to see where it wound around. I highly recommend this novel, and I’ll be reading other works by Doctorow.