[Random House; 2011]

by Tammela Platt

The twelve short stories in E.L. Doctorow’s new collection, All the Time in the World, are novelistic in scope, as each story ends with the bang of an action, event or revelation, but they are also quiet, compact, and unassuming – at least at first. The stories were “written over the course of many years” – and variously published in The New Yorker, The Kenyon Review, The Atlantic, The New American Review and Esquire – and, while Doctorow claims they have no connecting themes, many of the stories in the collection share questions and concerns.

Religion, for instance, drives two stories in the collection. “Walter John Harmon” is a fascinating portrait of a religious community in Kansas, formed by the titlular character, a “prophet” who offers converts a safe haven because “the world is overwhelming.” But it is an unnatural Utopia. The story’s ultra-sterile, overly-happy community reminded me at times of the similarly intriguing yet overly-sterile world of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which I read many times as a child. In “Heist,” a pastor adopts the title “Divinity Detective” as he searches for a stolen cross and finds it above a synagogue but never finds the thief. The story ends with an affecting zoom-out as we realize the entire narration has been a conversation with God: “[T]his poor soul tormented in his nostalgia for Your Only Begotten Son…has failed his training as a detective, having solved nothing. May he nevertheless pursue You? God? The Mystery?” The real mystery is not the stolen cross but God himself.

Other stories in All the Time in the World brush up against religion, but the theme underlying most of them is the need to build an artificial world around ourselves in order to cope with the difficulty of life. Doctorow’s loneliness stories can be summed up in a line from “Jolene: A Life”: “[S]he was alone as she had always been, a stranger in a strange land.” This sentiment is evident from the first story, “Wakefield,” in which a man spends almost a year living undetected in his garage attic, reverting to base instincts as he forages for food at night like the raccoons in his yard. He finds simplicity in this life yet remains isolated; he eventually returns to the real world. Loneliness, but also connectedness, are addressed in “Assimilation,” about two immigrants in Brooklyn – a man, Ramon, from Latin America and an Eastern European woman – who are forced into a fake marriage for a green card. The collision of old and new worlds could be lonely and depressing; however, Ramon makes the best of his circumstances – “[Arranged marriages] are the best, when the decision is to love someone you don’t know” – and the story ends on a hopeful and tender note.

Despite “Assimilation’s” almost-happy ending, overall these stories are sad. The last story in the collection, “All the Time in the World,” is punctuated by a repeated dialogue: “You have all the time in the world, she says. Until what? Until something happens, [she] says. What can happen? If we knew, [she] says, and breaks the connection.” Depressing yet inquisitive. Are we all just waiting for something to happen?

Ultimately, the most intriguing part of Doctorow’s stories is the mixture of narrative voices he uses. Doctorow often uses first-person narrative for more detailed narratives and a more personal effect; conversely, he uses the third person for a big-picture, “this could happen to anyone” effect. The stories flow well into one another, and though most of them made me feel uncomfortable – as good writing sometimes should – they are all fascinating in their subject matter and construction. Doctorow does not fail to deliver a set of superbly-crafted narratives.