L. Doctorow's City of God is a novel about almost everything imaginable: New York, the Holocaust, the 20th century, apocalypse, love, religion, and the universe.
The namesake for this novel is St. Augustine's book of the same title, which responded to those who blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome. Augustine saw human history as a struggle between an Earthly City and the City of God with the holy city winning in a final apocalyptic battle.
In Doctorow's novel, the city is New York, the time 1999, and the apocalypse at once personal, psychological, social, and theological.
The novel revolves around an odd occurrence: A cross disappears from behind the altar at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Manhattan, eventually reappearing on the roof of the synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism on the Upper West Side. Everett, a novelist, decides to investigate the mystery and in doing so befriends the priest at the church and the couple who are rabbis at the synagogue.
Always in the background of this novel's tale lies the Holocaust, both its historical reality and its effect on the present. Thus, as he investigates the mystery of the moving cross, Everett also finds himself investigating the Holocaust.
To tell the tale, Doctorow peppers his novel with a multitude of voices speaking directly from the pages of Everett's notebook including an ex-reporter for the New York Times, a Holocaust survivor, a World War II veteran, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Albert Einstein.
In its postmodern use of many voices strung together in a stream-of-consciousness style, City of God resembles the convoluted work of James Joyce, and like Joyce's novels, Doctorow's requires close attention from the reader. What the reader gives to this novel, however, the novel returns tenfold. It is a tale of depth and passion, humor and pain. It is a novel about apocalypse, yes, but it is also about finding hope, love, and some measure of faith amidst the ashes of the 20th century.
Vivian Wagner is a freelance writer in New Concord, Ohio.