What `brilliant' is really about

Doctorow on Twain, Kafka, The Bomb and other topics - all superb

Review Essays

October 29, 2006|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006

E.L. Doctorow

Random House / 192 pages / $24.95

In the U.K. the word "brilliant" has long been slang for pretty much anything fun, exciting, delicious, good, enjoyable - you name it, it's covered by the term.

In America, the word brilliant is repetitively overused as well, although with a more hifalutin' clarity of objective: This writer is "brilliant," this artist is "brilliant."

At least the British have it right - the appellation of brilliance has long since become pointless. When we attach it to everything, it ceases to have meaning.

Except and alas, we have yet to find adequate replacement for the worn-out term. And so I say it here: E.L. Doctorow is brilliant, the essays in Creationists are, to a one, brilliant.

If you read no other book of essays this year (except perhaps Cynthia Ozick's equivalently, if differently, brilliant The Din in the Head, reviewed here in July), read this.

One of the delights of E.L. Doctorow - beyond the simple enticement of smartness - is his joy in lyricism. He just can't avoid his love of language and reading Doctorow is like reading Walt Whitman or Philip Larkin: He tools along in a swirl of lush and near-exotic imagery of ideas that is at the same time utterly, almost prosaically accessible.

What makes Doctorow such a superb essayist is the fact that nothing he writes is beyond the ken of the average reader - any high school student can pick up a Doctorow essay and get through it without reaching for the dictionary or puzzling over a construction so complex as to rival advanced calculus.

Doctorow wants to be accessible, to be understood; his writing is overflowing with desire for comprehension by his audience (who is everyone, Everyman and Everywoman) of all he has to say - and he has loads to impart, all of it worthy of notice. He seeks to avoid architectural misdirection of the reader through prose so dense one cannot discern through its artificial intellectualism. One of the excitements in Creationists is how Doctorow deconstructs the artifice of others as he goes; not to disavow their genius, but rather to explain it.

Creationists is a collection about creators, not a treatise on those anti-scientific types brought into the foreground of the American consciousness by the Bush administration. This is no book about intelligent design, but it is a book about intelligence and its designers.

At the beginning of his piece on W.G. Sebald lies the coda to Creationists and the kibosh on that faux intelligent design perspective: "Once upon a time when the only authors were God and his prophets, stories were presumed to be true simply by the fact of being told. No more. In a modern world deprived by rationalism and science of a divinely conceived universe, all authors are recognized as mortal. Their stories are not automatically believed to be true. This creates a problem that writers writing in the name of God never had. And so, since the appearance of the earliest novels, authors have had to reclaim the authority of their art by ruse."

Doctorow is nothing if not declarative. Yet one can almost see the twinkle in the eye as he makes the declarations.

And so in these essays he illumines why Poe is America's genius hack writer, explores the differences between Hemingway's take on the Spanish Civil War and Malraux's vision of the same conflict, takes Uncle Tom's Cabin to task. He gives an appreciation of Harpo Marx and a testament to Einstein. He charts the strange perceptions of Kafka and the more sinister workings of the teams who designed the nuclear bomb. And through it all lies brilliance - of language, of explication, of discernment, of authorial voice. Doctorow never cowers in his analyses.

Creationists is one of those unplanned collections. These essays aren't linked by a common theme - except, perhaps the creative filament of their subjects. Nor were they even written necessarily as essays. Much of what's in Creationists was culled from lectures, reviews and commentaries. Which serves to make the collection all the more seemingly immediate.

There is some chiding to be found in Creationists. In his introduction, Doctorow queries about the appetite for self-congratulatory destructiveness: "Why wrestle with a book when you could be amassing a fortune? Why write when you could be shooting someone?"

Some pieces in the book will resonate more than others from personal preference or intellectual dispute (there will always be those to rally for Poe's genius), but there isn't a treatise here not worth reading.

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