E.L. Doctorow has a new book out. I haven't read it yet, but I wanted to take a moment to salute one of the great story-tellers, and sentence-crafters of our time. Here's Doctorow bracing recreation of Harry Houdini from Ragtime:
His life was absurd. He went all over the world accepting all kinds of bondage and escaping. He was roped to a chair. He escaped. He was chained to a ladder. He escaped. He was handcuffed, his legs were put in irons, he was tied up in a strait jacket and put in a locked cabinet. He escaped. He escaped from bank vaults, nailed-up barrels, sewn mailbags; he escaped from a zinc-lined Knabe piano case, a giant football, a galvanized iron boiler, a rolltop desk, a sausage skin.
His escapes were mystifying because he never damaged or appeared to unlock what he escaped from. The screen was pulled away and there he stood disheveled but triumphant beside the inviolate container that was supposed to have contained him. He waved to the crowd. He escaped from a sealed milk can filled with water. He escaped from a Siberian exile van. From a Chinese torture crucifix. From a Hamburg penitentiary. From an English prison ship. From a Boston jail. He was chained to automobile tires, water wheels, cannon, and he escaped. He dove manacled from a bridge into the Mississippi, the Seine, the Mersey, and came up waving. He hung upside down and strait-jacketed from cranes, biplanes and the tops of buildings.
He was dropped into the ocean padlocked in a diving suit fully weighted and not connected to an air supply, and he escaped. He was buried alive in a grave and could not escape, and had to be rescued. Hurriedly, they dug him out. The earth is too heavy, he said gasping. His nails bled. Soil fell from his eyes. He was drained of color and couldn't stand. His assistant threw up. Houdini wheezed and sputtered. He coughed blood. They cleaned him off and took him back to the hotel. Today, nearly fifty years since his death, the audience for escapes is even larger.
When I talk about hip-hop giving me an aesthetic, I think about how I felt when I read that passage. Now Ragtime is a great story, but on a basic beautiful sound level, it's incredible. Hip-Hop told me that, when writing, you should try to assemble words in a beautiful fashion. That sounds basic, but it really isn't. There are plenty of highly-touted writers with a tin-ear.
When I read Doctorow, I always felt like I was listening to a great M.C--the greatest M.C. I'd ever heard. That riff of escapes is just gorgeous, and then ending with a line like The Earth is too heavy. And calling Houdini "absurd." It was how I wanted to sound in my prose, and it heavily influenced the way I looked at sentences.
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