Like Warren, he starts his novel in medias res and goes backward, after setting the hook, to establish a little about who his character is and why he’s there.
A couple of differences, though. Doctorow opens the story at the character’s crisis — or the Inmost Cave in Hero’s Journey lingo — the character’s darkest moment. His backstory begins at the beginning of the plot; he even leaves off the Ordinary World and begins with the first plot point, or the Entry into the New World (the traffic accident with the future girlfriend). Eastern Standard Tribe is a lighter novel than All the King’s Men, and I’m sure Doctorow would be the first to point out that he’s not a U.S. Poet Laureate writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. But there’s a difference in audience as well, and Doctorow’s futuristic tale of a man considering the value of smarts versus happiness has an edgy, post-modern feel to it, without so completely abandoning tiresome forms that he gives up the entire concept of story.
Short version: it works for what he’s doing. Like Warren, he anchors his story in time and refers back to the story present as often as he needs to for the audience to remain oriented and involved. Like Warren, he faces the danger of losing audience interest because of the technique he’s chosen, but he overcomes the danger though effective use of action, dialogue, scene, and characterization to open the backstory. One other factor working in his favor is the shortness of the work; it’s easier for the attention-deprived reader (of whom I am first) to keep coming back, because the novel’s very lightness promises that it won’t be hard to pick up the thread again. (Contrast my tendency to set aside Umberto Eco novels, even ones I love, for months before picking them up and finishing them.)
Both Warren and Doctorow use an ironic touch that points out the incongruities of life. The humor helps in Warren’s case to wash out any tinge of purple and in Doctorow’s case to maintain a breezy, engaging style.
It’s worth noting that both have first-person narrators, who receive the reader’s permission to tell the story any way they please, as long as the writer, in his persona as narrator, keeps it interesting and keeps us unconfused. Both succeed. For the student of backstory, it’s a good contrast to explore.
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