I always wonder what books authors like to read, so I recently contacted some of the great authors who have featured on my blog in recent years to ask what their favourite book is and why they enjoyed it. I’m pleased to introduce the first guest post from Peter Salmon, author of The Coffee Story. I’m adding it straight to my reading list.
The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow
‘On Memorial Day in 1967 Daniel Lewin thumbed his way from New York to Worcester, Mass … With him was his young wife, Phyllis, and their eight-month-old son, Paul … The day was hot and overcast … and the traffic was wondering – I mean the early morning traffic was light, but not many drivers could pass them without wondering who they were and where they were going … This is a Tinline felt-tip marker, black. This is Composition Notebook 79c made in USA by Long Island Paper Products, Inc. This is Daniel trying one of the dark coves of the Browsing room … Daniel, a tall young man of twenty-five …’
From the moment I started The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow, I knew nothing would be the same. This is the most vicious, passionate, desperate, glorious and brilliant book I have ever read – The Coffee Story is basically a rip-off, and I’d owe Doctorow royalties if I earned any.
I won’t go into the plot – it’s loosely based on the execution of the Rosenbergs for spying in 50s USA – but I do want to talk about it as a piece of writing. This was the book that first taught me that ANYTHING is possible in the novel – being a paid up member of the artsy wanky pomo clan before I read this, I was well versed in narrative techniques and saw them as some sort of intellectual game. Then this book came along and made me realise that when you embark on a novel the thing is to use every possible method to speak the narrative truth required. The Book of Daniel uses discontinuous narrative, time-shifts, POV shifts, not as a game, but because it’s a story that – literally cannot be told any other way.
And Doctorow tried. The first version of the book was written third person, calm, collected etc etc. Doctorow finished and realised he’d failed. So (and I’m exaggerating for effect, but not much) he threw the whole thing in the bin, and in sheer bloody frustration, wrote the opening paragraph above. And produced a howl of rage and pain that, in the end, can only be described by his own – Daniel’s own, summation of the work of Edgar Allen Poe, halfway through the book…
‘But historians of America fail to mention the archetype traitor, the master subversive, Poe, who wore a hole through the parchment, and let the darkness pour though… It’s Poe, not those other guys. He and he alone. It’s Poe who ruined us, that scream from the smiling face of America.’