Annotating City of God, I remembered that I’d used the Bible as a template—that in my collage of chronicles, songs, troubled relationships, religious anxieties, laws of the universe, sins, and days of reckoning, I had deferred to the scissors-and-paste job of all time.
First edition, signed on the front flyleaf. After seeing an early version of City of God, Doctorow’s editor, Mary Bahr of Random House told him, “you are writing a Bible!” It was an “epiphany,” Doctorow explains in one of the numerous, generous and revealing annotations that pepper his book. “The moment I realized I was doing this homage to the original scissors & paste job—the ancient template of cosmology, wars, psalms (Midrash Jazz Quartet), suffering exile & death.” He realized that his tale of modern Manhattan, told through the daybook of the novelist “Everett,” had to be nothing less than a new City of God. Doctorow draws in Einstein, Whitman, Wittgenstein, the theft of a cross from a church in lower Manhattan, the clash between science and philosophy and the implications of the Holocaust. In a note across pages 6-7 Doctorow explains that the story of the cross theft was originally published in The New Yorker, and critic Alfred Kazin, “author of God and the American Writer said ‘Will this be a novel?’” It would, Doctorow explains in another note, with “all the stories swirling around like the slow creator of the moral universe.” The movies play an important part in the minds of the characters, and as a stylistic device, so Doctorow can’t help noting the irony of how “A Times movie critic reviewed this book! Didn’t like it.” And like all fin de siècle novels set in pre-9/11 Manhattan, Doctorow’s work (like DeLillo’s Underworld) takes on added depths of meaning from what he and the CIA never saw coming.
DOCTOROW, E. L. (b. 1931) City of God. New York: Random House, . Original black cloth, spine stamped in gilt, dust jacket.