Heaven Can Wait

Einsteinian physics, Jewish and Christian theology, Wittgensteinian logic, Vietnam, the Holocaust: heavy subjects all. They make City of God seem leaden.

City of God
Random House; 272 pages; $25

E.L. Doctorow’s City of God is a novel not of faces but of heads. Large heads, filled to bursting with ideas. Ideas about history, physics, and philosophy, but mostly ideas about divinity. What Doctorow’s people look like, act like, feel like is secondary to what they think. They’re ambulatory intellects, walking craniums. If the book were a comic strip, the thought balloons would resemble dirigibles tethered to tiny bodies, and the words inside the balloons would be so dense, so fine and tiny and tightly interknit, that it would take precision optics to read them.

It’s an easy book to admire but a hard one to love, perhaps. The author’s ambitions are grand. The grandest. Doctorow aims to bring Heaven down to earth, meld the eternal and the everyday, reconcile spirituality and science, and generally elevate suffering humankind with a new understanding of its cosmic status. Everything becomes grist for this great synthesis: Einsteinian physics, Jewish and Christian theology, Wittgensteinian logic, Vietnam, the Holocaust, and New York City (which Doctorow calls a great “religioplex” and represents as an inspired creation, living proof of divinity at work). That’s a lot of significance for one book to handle, a lot of meaning to squeeze between two covers – particularly when the ultimate problems, transcendent riddles, and universal truths are loaded onto the structure from the top, in the form of essays, speeches, and meditations, rather than built into the foundation in the form of characters and story.

The questing soul at the center of the book – a book whose center is hard to find at times – is a liberal Episcopal priest, one Father Pemberton, who ministers to a tiny congregation on the Lower East Side. Pemberton is in crisis about his faith, muddled with doctrinal doubts and distracted by the pleasures of the flesh. He can’t get his arms around the Trinity but has no trouble getting them around his married mistress. His history of activism – fighting against the Vietnam War and for civil rights – has drawn the wrong kind of attention from church authorities, who seem to want him out. No organization man, Pemberton feels spiritually buried in an institution whose roots and purposes often strike him as dubious, at best. A student of modern theologians such as Barth and Tillich, but also a hands-on comforter of the sick and poor, he’s both too sophisticated and too red-blooded to tread the paths of orthodoxy quietly.

Already ripe for apostasy, Pemberton is pushed over the edge when the cross from his altar is stolen and reappears on the roof of a progressive synagogue. Much is made of this little mystery and its possible religious symbolism, but it serves for the most part as a plot device to bring together Pemberton and two rabbis, Sarah Blumenthal and her husband, Joshua. Their Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism appeals to the forward-thinking, Christ-doubting Pemberton and is held up by Doctorow as an ideal church, warm, broad-minded, inquisitive, serious, a little bit country, a little bit rock-and-roll. A perfect fit, that is, for pretty much anyone who isn’t a die-hard fundamentalist or a cynical secularist. So what’s the conflict?

There is none. Anywhere. Pemberton converts to the new faith, marries Sarah (after her husband dies, conveniently beaten to death offstage in another unsolved mystery that is supposed to feel numinous and provocative), and the couple lives happily ever after, a model of ecumenical enlightenment.

In terms of basic drama, that’s the story: Thinking Christian becomes thinking Jew. So how, you ask, does Wittgenstein come into it? Well, he just does. And all that other stuff too. Doctorow is writing the higher hodgepodge, and nothing, no digression, is forbidden, as long as it somehow leads back to his themes. And with themes this large, almost anything leads back to them, including lectures by great philosophers, postmodern rewrites of popular songs, a long reminiscence of the Holocaust involving Sarah’s father, some notes on bird-watching, and a bit about a retired Times reporter who hunts down war criminals on his bicycle. To draw all this metafictionally together, there’s a sort of book within the book, written by a journalist named Everett whom we only faintly get to know.

The above is an unfair summary, of course. Any recipe can be made to sound chaotic by listing its ingredients out of context. The problem with City of God, however, is not incoherence but the opposite. The collage isn’t irrational enough. The cut-and-pasted pieces yield few surprises, the fractures and jump cuts never really startle, and the mysteries aren’t mysterious. This is all another way of saying that there can be no interesting collisions when a novel’s elements all run parallel.

City of God only looks freewheeling; in fact it’s a traditional, straight-line argument, and hardly a controversial one at that. (That the book’s only villains are Nazis should be a clue.) Tolerance, knowledge, simplicity, and love are wordily and exhaustively extolled and proved to be superior to their opposites – sometimes by Pemberton, other times by Sarah, and sometimes by famous Viennese philosophers. Sometimes the brainy asides drop out of nowhere, such as this one spoken by Everett (I believe): “Thus the term film language is an oxymoron… . Film implodes discourse, it deliterates thought, it shrinks it to the compacted meaning of the preverbal impression or intuition or understanding. You receive what you see, you don’t have to think it out.” Dialogue, when it occurs, also tends to be lofty and scholastic. “But it was after I met Joshua and we began talking that I realized that ethnicity, incorporating the tradition in yourself, is not enough.”

Underneath all this thinking, there’s not much doing, though the Holocaust sections – about a boy’s adventures in an increasingly imperiled ghetto – provide a certain respite from the cognition, demonstrating that Doctorow the storyteller is still alive inside the seminarian. His drive to fashion a major statement about the perennial questions is just too much, though; no episode, situation, or character can survive its heady onslaught.

The attraction between Pemberton and Sarah, which ought to be the book’s emotional glue, is purported to be instinctive and sexual, but it plays on the page like a world-religions class. The union of their traditions is what counts, and the reader can never forget this for a second. The book winds up with a wedding speech from Pemberton so florid and all-encompassing and somber that you wish someone would sneeze or cough to break his chain of thought.

Heaven Can Wait