If there is anything that E.L. Doctorow can be faulted for is his unrelenting ambition. The Book of Daniel is only his second published work, but he does things with it that an author penning his 50th wouldn’t, in his or her right mind, pursue. The novel is written as a rough draft for a graduate school dissertation by the book’s protagonist Daniel Rosenberg – son of alleged Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his largely autobiographical dissertation Daniel writes about the tumultuous ways in which his parents’ wrongful imprisonment has affected him and his family’s lives.
This is a largely political, and disturbing work that deals with the psychological damage that such a tragic event may have on someone. Daniel grows up to be cynical, sadistic, and selfish, but believes in his heart that it’s his right to be so after what had happened, which also makes him a hypocrite. Doctorow’s disturbing and detailed accounts of Daniel’s sexual perversions are difficult to get past and make it hard for the reader to connect with him. But the book shines when, through Daniel, Doctorow describes the historical setting, the unfairness, and the psychological toll on everyone involved in prose so immeasurably strong, that some of it can bring one to tears.
It is a testament to Doctorow’s bravery that he would write a book as difficult to readily consume as this, so early in his career. While the narrative perspective is singular (that of Daniel), the book skips back and forth in time, introducing characters that only later get their needed development. While it’s difficult to really get lost, some passages of the book are either too symbolic or too abstract, and I was unable to see how they fit into the story. Still, if you’re bored by traditional narrative and are looking for a book that has many hidden rewards for the reader, The Book of Daniel should certainly be on your list of must-reads. B+