In his workbook, a New York City novelist records the contents of his teeming brain -- sketches for stories, accounts of his love affairs, riffs on the meanings of popular songs, ideas for movies, obsessions with cosmic processes. He is a virtual repository of the predominant ideas and historical disasters of the age. But now he has found a story he thinks may become his next novel: The large brass cross that hung behind the altar of St. Timothy's, a run-down Episcopal church in lower Manhattan, has disappeared ... and even more mysteriously reappeared on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, on the Upper West Side. The church's maverick rector and the young woman rabbi who leads the synagogue are trying to learn who committed this strange double act of desecration and why. Befriending them, the novelist finds that their struggles with their respective traditions are relevant to the case. Into his workbook go his taped interviews, insights, preliminary drafts ... and as he joins the clerics in pursuit of the mystery, it broadens to implicate a large cast of vividly drawn characters -- including scientists, war veterans, prelates, Holocaust survivors, cabinet members, theologians, New York Times reporters, filmmakers, and crooners -- in what proves to be a quest for an authentic spirituality at the end of this tortured century.
Deep stuff here. Excellently written, really, at a pretty mind-blowing level. Having tried my hand recently at some writing myself, I have a new-found appreciation for the ease with which Doctorow seems to create incredibly profound and beautiful passages. It's rare to get a book that shares such excellence on both a conceptual and purely language-aesthetic level.
So, go buy this, take your time with it, it's worth it.
Multiple plot lines and stories, and all the pieces matter. Love this kind of story.
It is really hard to summarize the plot of this book because there are a number of storylines some of which intersect but others just seem to be left hanging. I guess the main plot is the one involving Father Pembroke (known as Pem as I shall refer to him henceforth), a preacher in the Episcopalian (or what nonAmericans would call Anglican) church. He works out of a small rundown church in a poor part of New York City. His church is robbed and one of the things taken is the large crucifix from in front of the altar. Some time later Pem receives a call from a Jewish rabbi who has found the crucifix on the roof of the building which houses his temple and his home. This brings Pem into contact with the rabbi and his wife who is also a rabbi. The wife's grandfather had survived living in a Jewish ghetto during World War II where he was entrusted to smuggle out accounts of how the Germans treated the Jews in the ghetto. These accounts were hidden by a Catholic priest but after the war they disappeared. Pem and the two rabbis embark on a search for them.
There are many diversions from this plot. Some are about how the universe was created; some discuss the origins of the book we call The Bible; yet others are restatements of classic songs. There is also a thread about the author doing research for this book including discussions he has with Pem and other people. Overall, the theme is about different religious and non-religious beliefs and how modern life views these beliefs.
I'm not sure that all of the diversions add to the book and some, in fact, seemed downright distracting. For instance, there is a story about some unnamed man who meets a married woman at a party, has an affair with her, then takes over the identity of her husband who becomes a street person. I have no idea what that had to do with the book.
The is a bit of a story here, which is wrapped alongside Doctorow's metaphysical musings. I actually enjoyed portions of the story a lot -- particularly the Holocaust and heist stories.... the other threads weren't really interesting to me at all.
I went through phases with this book -- I hated it in the beginning (mostly due to writing style) and then when the stories picked up, I started to really enjoy it. The last third or so of the book really dragged as it got away from the stories I actually enjoyed. Overall, if you're a Doctorow fan, you'll probably love this book. If not, you probably won't.