Pursuing the Old One

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PAUL GRAY A brass cross is stolen from the altar of a small Episcopal church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The theft makes the papers and gives the rector, Father Thomas Pemberton, his 15 minutes of fame. Eventually, it turns up in an odd place: the roof of the Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism on the Upper West Side. How did it get there, and why?

This small urban mystery strikes the opening chord of E.L. Doctorow's dazzling, polyphonic new novel City of God. But detective work, at least of the sort usually portrayed in fiction, is not really Doctorow's subject. He aims at a much broader and more elusive quarry: the nature of -- and the impediments to -- religious faith at the end of the technologically advanced and barbarously blood-soaked 20th century.

It takes a while for the narrative strategies of City of God to start meshing, but readers willing to be intrigued and patient for about 30 pages will get the hang of things. The entire novel comes from the notebooks of an author called Everett. Although he never reveals his last name, other personal details seep into his story. He is a New Yorker, born in the Bronx during the Depression. He has written for the movies, enjoys women, music and bird watching and keeps up on the latest theories of the cosmologists. After setting down a bravura description of the Big Bang, Everett adds, In fact if God is involved in this matter, these elemental facts, these apparent concepts, He is so fearsome as to be beyond any human entreaty for our solace, or comfort, or the redemption that would come of our being brought into His secret.

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E.L. Doctorow's enthralling City of God examines religious faith at the end of a bloody centuryCasting about for a new novel, Everett is attracted to the incident of the stolen cross and befriends Father Pemberton, who happens to be in the midst of a spiritual crisis. He has lost faith not in God but rather in the fictions that humans have spun around him. The biblical stories, he says, the Gospel stories, were the original understandings, they were science and religion, they were everything, they were all anyone had. But they didn't write themselves. We have to acknowledge the storytellers' work.

Beginnings, middles and ends cannot embody God, Pemberton claims, because God is ahistorical. In fact probably God and religion are incompatible propositions. Pemberton asks his new friend, Do you believe God gave Moses the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, on Mount Sinai? Everett replies, Well it's a great story. I think I'm a judge of stories and that's a great story.

Everett knows his answer is a writerly evasion of an old question: Can timeless truths be conveyed through something as time-ridden as language? Shouldn't, he wonders, great minds have brought us all a little closer to an answer? What about Einstein, say, or Wittgenstein?

Sure enough, these people, or rather Everett's fictional versions of them, begin speaking on his pages. Here is Einstein: I must try to understand certain irreducible laws of the universe as a transcendent behavior. In these laws, God, the Old One, will be manifest. Here is Wittgenstein: I have argued that the truths of silence, when spoken, are no longer true.

Everett's field of inquiry expands to include the strange appeal of popular music: When a song is a standard, it can reproduce itself from one of its constituent parts. If you recite the words you will hear the melody. Hum the melody and the words will form in your mind. Everett imagines a group called the Midrash Jazz Quartet performing Old Testament�style exegeses on such works as Me and My Shadow and Stardust.

Added to this already considerable variety are grim Holocaust tales, a love affair and the adventures of an ex�newspaper reporter who decides to bring a few stories to an end by murdering their evil protagonists. Oh yes, and Father Pemberton, now defrocked, comes to believe that he has found an answer to his doubts.

The true miracle of City of God is the way its disparate parts fuse into a consistently enthralling and suspenseful whole. In such novels as Ragtime (1975) and Billy Bathgate (1989), Doctorow mixed historical and fictional figures in ways that magically challenged ordinary notions of what is real. His new novel repeats this process, with even more intriguing and unsettling consequences. One of the many voices in the book says, The experience of experience is untransmittable. Reading City of God is exactly such an experience.