The first time I read E. L. Doctorow’s wonderful Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories (1984) was in early 2001, after picking up a used hardcover copy at City Lights Bookshop in London, Ontario, at 356 Richmond St. Not City Lights Bookstore, the famed bookstore in San Francisco, California, at 261 Columbus Ave—City Lights Bookshop (the one in London ON) is one of my favourite used bookstores ever, a small but dense and rich oasis of books and comics and records, etc.
A few years later, after reading Slavoj Žižek’s Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (2004), I reread Lives of the Poets. Much to my surprise, Žižek references Doctorow’s collection in his second book about 9/11 and its aftermath (namely, the illogic of the Bush administration’s reasons for invading Iraq). I was surprised to learn Žižek uses Doctorow’s collection as a sort of model. Žižek writes,
The hidden literary model for this book is what I consider E. L. Doctorow’s masterpiece, the supreme exercise in literary post-modernism, far superior to his bestselling Ragtime, or Billy Bathgate: his Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella—six totally heterogeneous short stories (a son is set to the task of concealing his father’s death; a drowned child is callously handled by rescuers; a lonely schoolteacher is shot by a hunter; a boy witnesses his mother’s act of infidelity; a car explosion kills a foreign schoolgirl) accompanied by a novella which conveys the confused impressions of the day-to-day life of a writer in contemporary New York who, as we soon guess, is the author of the six stories. The charm of the book is that we can reconstruct the process of the artistic working-through of the raw material of this day-to-day life.
As soon as I’d finished Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, I reread Lives of the Poets, my engagement with the book deepening.
I’ve read the Doctorow collection twice since then. About a decade later, in 2015, I used it as an oblique model for organizing a book of my own fiction, It Is an Honest Ghost, which consists of six stories and a novella (Hic et Ubique). There was something about how Doctorow’s stories stood alone—were “totally heterogeneous,” in Žižek’s words—but nevertheless informed one another, that I found haunting.
My new collection was originally made up of eight stories and a novella but for myriad reasons I cut two stories, not the least of those reasons being for the sake of uniformity, a loose strange symmetry—a uniformity and symmetry impressed upon my mind by Doctorow.
And then I read Lives of the Poets for a fourth time in July 2016, while working on this short appreciation. Lives of the Poets remains politically perspicacious, deeply insightful, and contemporary.
Here’s Doctorow on US immigration, and mass migrations in general. The writer, the narrator of the novella, emerges from the NYC subway, and observes the new waves of immigrants to the city. He writes,
Dear God, let them migrate, let my country be the last best hope. But let us make some distinctions here: The Irish, the Italians, the Jews of Eastern Europe, came here because they wanted a new life. They worked for the money to bring over their families. They said good riddance to the old country and were glad to be gone. They did not come here because of something we had done to them. The new immigrants are here because we have made their lands unlivable. They have come here to save themselves from us.
Lives of the Poets continues to shed light on the present for me. Out of Doctorow’s impressive and celebrated oeuvre, it’s often overlooked. But it remains an insightful and inspiring collection, chock-a-block with strange echoes and resonances.
John Goldbach is the author of The Devil and the Detective (Coach Books, 2013), a novel, which was an Amazon Best Book of 2013; Selected Blackouts (Insomniac Press, 2009), a story collection; and, most recently, It Is an Honest Ghost (Coach House Books, 2016), a collection of six short stories and a novella (Hic et Ubique).
Works Cited: Žižek, Slavoj. Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle. New York: Verso, 2004, p. 7.
Photo: Kate Hutchinson (headshot)