Monday, June 4, 2012

Battle of the Prizes - American Version - World's Fair


In this poetic blend of novel and memoir, which I read for the Battle of the Prizes - American Version, Doctorow does an excellent job of delivering the feelings and impressions of a young boy growing up in 1930 in the Bronx. The novel uses shifting perspectives and different levels of language, swooping from vignette to vignette almost like a movie camera; at the same time, it maintains a coherence that makes it easy to identify with and to follow.

Edgar, the main character (who may or may not be the author himself), is an unusually perceptive and descriptive young narrator, and although his story delivers plenty of immediacy, it is clearly told from the moderately nostalgic viewpoint of an adult.

Although Edgar's brother and his mother take over the narration occasionally, they always begin by directing their words to Edgar, explaining that he'd gotten some detail wrong or elaborating on some point that he'd made about them. This linking device ties the novel together nicely and adds to its cinematic, memoirish feel, as though the author decided he needed another perspective and went off to interview the other people involved about their version of events.

A lot of the details remain Edgar's, however, and he doesn't intrude as an adult very often. His parents' marriage has its bright spots but is overall fairly unhappy, leaving both parties dissatisfied with their lives. Doctorow gives mostly the preadolescent perspective on this, which is probably a good choice. If he knew too much, the boyish focus would be lost.

This is, after all, Edgar's story about the year of the World's Fair. The fair occupies a major position in the novel as a kind of promised land. When Edgar finally attends, the fair turns out to be as complex and evasive as any long-sought goal, finally attained.

Doctorow's prose at times approaches the poetic, as he filters Edgar's childhood perceptions through a clearly adult intellect. It's appropriate that each chapter seems to end with this poetic voice, transitioning the narrator between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. In this masterful novel that works on many levels, Doctorow documents the year in Edgar's life when he discovered he could do exactly that.

Excerpt:

I had the good fortune to be living in this neighborhood, but its borders were not inviolate. That my house was of red brick, which I knew was essential from the tale of the three little pigs, evoked in me feelings of deepest gratitude. However, in bed at night, after the light was out, I heard outside in the dark sometimes the kicking over of ash cans, or a police siren, and then closer to my ear but somehow less audible, the breath of someone watching me. And in my sleep figures would loom in threatening gesture and just as suddenly recede into colored swirling points, as if I myself had been spread-eagled on a wheel spinning so fast that the colors melted together and became a target.

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