EL Doctorow's City of God starts off not merely with a bang but with the big bang itself, that "great expansive flowering, a silent flash into being in a second or two of the entire outrushing universe". It doesn't remain on this cosmic plane throughout. There's a mystery here, along with a romance, a chilling Holocaust narrative and a deep-focus portrait of fin-de-siécle Manhattan.
In the early pages of the novel, an enormous brass cross is pilfered from a church on the Lower East Side. Father Thomas Pemberton of St Timothy's promptly sets off in search of it, dubbing himself the Divinity Detective. Yet he suspects from the start that this is no ordinary theft, with no ordinary solution. The cross eventually turns up on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, a tiny Manhattan institution to which Pemberton has clearly been led by fate. His encounter with the synagogue's rabbinical duo--a husband-and-wife team struggling to reclaim a pre-scriptural state of "unmediated awe"--transforms his life. It also destroys what's left of his conventional Christian belief. As his relationship with Judaism deepens, he discards the clerical collar altogether and embarks upon a penitential exploration of the Holocaust--which in turn allows Doctorow to loop his narrative back and forth between several generations of (mostly) Jew and Gentile.
City of God is a marvellous hybrid which includes a meta-fictional framework (i.e., an author-as-character with a rather Doctorovian CV), an ongoing rumination on city life and a dozen other major strands and minor players. There is an undeniable power to the way Doctorow makes his fictional worlds collide, setting off all manner of historical and philosophical conflagrations. At one point he imagines "the totality of intimate human narrations/composing a hymn to enlightenment/if that were possible". A tall order, yes. But despite its occasional longueurs, City of God suggests that it is possible indeed. --James Marcus