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The Book of Daniel – Andy sings the body electric with the Rosenbergs

May 27, 2013

No, sorry. Not the Rosenbergs. The Isaacsons.

And apologies to Walt Whitman for an extraordinarily tasteless crack about the death penalty in some of the United States.

The descriptions of execution towards the end of this novel are not pathetic attempts at humour. They are brutal, and sickening, and compulsive. They are some of the most astonishing passages in a pretty astonishing novel.

bookofdanielThe Book of Daniel is a fictionalised account of the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in the ’50s, and of the lives of their children in the ’60s. But it also looks back to the politics of the ’30s and earlier. And, eerily, given that it was first published in 1971, it points towards the future, in which the politics of much of what calls itself the left is utterly devoid of substance.

The Isaacsons supposedly pass nuclear secrets on to Russia. Actually no, they didn’t. They conspired to. It’s a few weeks since I finished the book but if memory served the prosecution does not attempt to prove that they actually passed material to the enemy. They just wanted to. Talked about it, planned it. In ’50s America that was enough. With miserly evidence the state gets them convicted of one crime and ¬†sentenced under the terms of another. They’re convicted of conspiracy but sentenced for treason. And so they die.

Apparently Doctorow has taken some literary licence here. The Rosenbergs were apparently much more clearly implicated in , and guilty of, the crimes they were accused of. Or at least that’s what Nettie told me. I think.

So the novel jumps between the Isaacson house before and during the investigation and the months or years that follow the trial, with the Isaacson children, the titular Daniel and the later rather fucked-up Susan, bouncing from unpleasant family friend to child shelter to, ultimately, adoptive parents, whose surname – Lewin – they take after their parents’ deaths.

To be fair, Daniel is a bit fucked up as well. Daniel is not a terribly sympathetic narrator – although he’s not actually our narrator when we first meet him. But then he is, quite a bit, later on. But then he isn’t again. In fact he switches from being the novel’s narrator to be a third-person character quite often. Sometimes within the same scene. Sometimes more than once in the same scene. And this is a great techniq2ue to suggest narrator as observer, not just of his past life but of the life he’s living as he narrates it. Anyway. Daniel’s not a terribly sympathetic character. There’s a point at which he burns his wife’s nethers with his car’s cigarette lighter. They have a bit of a falling out after that, which is not too surprising, although they get back together again pretty soon after that, which is. In a novel that is a fine achievement this might be one of Doctorow’s finest – a bit of an arsehole of a main character that does not taint the novel in any way. What Daniel has been subjected to is explored in sometimes microscopic, often painful details. But there is never really the suggestion that this excuses his appalling behaviour as an adult – although it may explain it, to some extent. And ultimately he is a somewhat sympathetic, if terribly flawed, individual

I was keen to read this for a few reasons – I am a bit of a leftie, the sort that described themselves as an anarcho-communist in their 20s without actually having the faintest fucking idea what that meant. And I am familiar with the Rosenbergs, although admittedly for the most part through another work of factually based fiction – Angels in America, in which the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg comes back to haunt the noxious, closeted, fascist Republican operative Roy Cohn as he dies of AIDS in the mid-’80s. (Great piece of TV, by the way, if you haven’t seen it.) The Book of Daniel and Angels in America are not companion pieces by any stretch of the imagination. But there is a degree of complementarity if you are familiar with both.

Doctorow’s novel is not metafictive but he uses some metafictive elements. And it is for the most part emotionally detached, which actually builds the story’s emotional power to an ultimately almost unbearable level. “I suppose you think I can’t do the electrocution,” Daniel/Doctorow says, before he, um, does the electrocution. No, to be honest. I didn’t think he could. But he does. And it is difficult to read (Nettie, that avuncular fan of American Psycho, will doubtless disagree). And for a political novel Doctorow’s personal politics are at once backgrounded and obvious. Broadly and perhaps even aggressively left wing, he also has a clear vision of the weaknesses of the organised left of the mid-20th century and the laughably pathetic (in his hands) pseudo-anarchism of the late ’60s hippies.

The Book of Daniel is the second Doctorow book I’ve read. Billy Bathgate was the first, more than 20 years ago. I think he might have to feature a bit in my future reading.

Him and everybody else.

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