The divine tragi-comedy played on God's empty stage

City of God by E L Doctorow (Little, Brown, £15.99)
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The Independent Culture

At one stage in E L Doctorow's City Of God, the narrator attacks the corrosive effects of film. It "implodes discourse," he laments. It plunges us back into a pre-linguistic existence, stripping the moral world of complexity. It does "close-ups... chases, and explosions". Fiction, by contrast, "can do anything in the dark horrors of consciousness". City of God is the evidence. Not even a combination of Scorsese, Altman and Almodóvar could follow him here.

It begins simply enough. A writer is looking for a subject and believes he has found it when a heavy brass cross is stolen from St Timothy's Episcopal Church in New York and discovered on the roof of the Synogogue of Evolutionary Judaism. The crime, whose symbolism is intriguing, brings together the sceptical Rev Thomas Pemberton and reformist Rabbi Sarah Blumenthall. They turn "divinity detectives", contemplating the case for God and religion amid the decay of a city and a world.

This mystery, though, is merely the doorway into others. For Sarah's father had died in the Lithuanian Holocaust and left behind an account which, juxtaposed with the narrator's own catalogues of death in three wars, takes us into the heart of a blood-flecked century. Seemingly random facts suddenly earth in pain.

But this, in turn, is contained within a greater fiction as the writer whose book this supposedly is half records and half re-imagines these events. Into his text come popular songs, prose poems, fragments of other stories, monologues by Wittgenstein, invocations of St Augustine. At one moment we are in outer space, contemplating the universe red-shifting to nowhere, the next in the depths of the ocean.

Doctorow has always taken pleasure in bringing together unlikely ingredients. This novel takes the process to new levels. He is no Delia Smith, primly folding them together. He is the Naked Chef of fiction, arms glistening with olive oil and sweat, celebrating the colours, textures, smells of the concoction he summons up.

Into the mixture go God, time, creation, genocide, love, language, faith. Doctorow revels in the generative variety of the world while acknowledging the prescriptive zeal that seeks order at the price of humanity.

Doubt, it suddenly seems, and not faith, may be the true redemption when belief has been the sanction for nothing but violence. At its best, religion becomes "ignorance of causes reduced to a system"; at its worst it is the root of evil. God has been "a license to kill".

In the end, the Rev Pemberton abandons his church, unable to bear a God agnostic towards suffering, enrolled in every genocidal vaudeville staged by politicians or mass murderers. Fittingly, his church becomes a theatre. And though he converts to Judaism to marry Sarah, her faith is no more than a version of Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief. Finally, they reinvent a God who will resist his own predilection for indifference.

The weaknesses of City of God are no more than aspects of its strengths. It is a novel bright with invention, luminous with language. Sometimes images flutter down like sycamore leaves with no obvious reason for their existence beyond the writer's own enthusiasm. Perhaps that very exuberant redundancy is the source of value in a novel in which the ideologue seeks to patrol the boundaries of invention. The sheer linguistic élan of City of God is both a constant pleasure and an indication of the resources humankind can still pitch against the evidence for despair.

Who else but Doctorow would envisage digitised movies exploding through the universe, so that an alien sky will be lit by the image of Randolph Scott, the face of God flickering over a distant planet? Given the narrator's (and doubtless Doctorow's) view of movies, where better to beam them than into the void?