BOOK REVIEW / Plumbing sinister depths: The Waterworks - E L Doctorow: Macmillan, pounds 14.99

Michael Dibdin
Saturday 11 June 1994 23:02 BST

IT IS fairly common to finish a novel feeling that it hasn't quite come off, much rarer to feel that in one respect it could have been improved by a simple mechanical operation at the editorial stage. 'For if you think about it, we live mostly by habit . . . waiting . . . sustained by temporary pleasure . . . or curiosity . . . or diffuse hopeless energies . . . including malice . . . but not by that sustaining idea of a future that only comes humming in the secret aliveness that everyone can see except the two idiotic . . . starers.'

There are lots of things wrong with that sentence, notably the fact that . . . it doesn't actually . . . seem to . . . mean . . . anything, but the most obvious is that it has suspension dots like some people have acne. This page has 22 sets and it is by no means atypical. There are two possible explanations for this maddening tic. One is that the narrator, McIlvaine, is a 19th-century journalist and this sort of cadencing was much in vogue at the time, just as Edgar Allen Poe got a quantity discount from his printer for dashes. A less charitable alternative is that The Waterworks is basically a short story, and Doctorow needs all the help he can get to bulk it out to 250 pages.

It would be unfair to reveal more than the bare minimum of the plot here. We are dealing with dark doings in 1870s New York, involving a ruthless millionaire patriarch who may or may not be dead, the disappearance of his Bohemian poete maudit son, the machinations of the corrupt city administration and the vile experiments of Dr Sartorius, an evil genius-cum-visionary superbrain in the line of Hyde and Frankenstein.

A writer such as Patrick McGrath, with his stylistic virtuosity and post-modern irony, might have galavanised some life into these Gothic reliquiae. Doctorow not only plays it absolutely straight, but keeps insisting, through McIlvaine, that the tale possesses a larger significance, involving the crisis of modernity, the death of God, the loss of the old certainties, man's inhumanity to man, the demise of punctuation and much else that I either missed or failed to understand.

The best thing in the book is the description of the waterworks, a system of aqueducts connected to a huge, rather sinister reservoir which supplied the city until the 1890s. These passages have a genuine freshness, which perhaps suggests they were the inspiration for a story which elsewhere seems contrived. The meticulous period detail might have been copied direct from a researcher's notebook, and sometimes the language goes astray. I doubt whether a writer of the period would have used 'gender' to mean 'sex', or would have said: 'He was my disempowerment'.

A film producer once said that the problem with adapting novels for the screen is that you have to cut them down to short-story proportions. The only consolation for admirers of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate is that this book, stripped of its narrator's diffuse ramblings and fleshed out with strong production values, will probably make a better movie than either.

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