Doctorow’s fever dream of the American past remade the historical novel. In a story spanning the first decades of the 20th century, three groups of fictional characters — a white middle-class family, a family of Jewish immigrants, and an African-American couple — lead lives entwined with one another and with some of the great public figures of the day, including Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud. The presiding concerns and undertakings of the decades that would follow — technology, race, power — all announce themselves and are tied by Doctorow into narrative configurations so odd, yet so oddly persuasive in their dream logic, you laugh out loud, at least until the ultimate tragedy unfolds. The interaction of real and fictional characters wasn’t new in itself, but with this pulsing, delightful book, Doctorow made it feel that way.
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