Where She Was
In a world of ideal literary forms, autobiography, however fictionalized in certain of its aspects, would exist as a genre distinct from the novel, however much the latter might be derived from the author’s personal experience. Often the distinction is clear enough: for a variety of reasons involving style, rhetoric, narrative organization, and the presentation of the protagonist, we are not likely to regard Stop-Time as a novel or Look Homeward, Angel as an autobiography. When a blurring of the two genres occurs, the result can be dismaying if issues of public significance are concerned (Lillian Hellman’s memoirs come to mind—just where does the purportedly factual account of an episode slide into self-aggrandizing fantasy?) or harmless enough, as in the case of Doctorow’s World’s Fair, a work of substantially autobiographical prose that is called a novel.
Just what in World’s Fair is indeed fictional? Presumably Doctorow wishes to provoke the question, for he has experimented with such blurring of genre before. In the recent novella called Lives of the Poets, certain publicly known facts of Doctorow’s own life are used as a scaffolding on which to hang invented encounters and relationships. More closely aligned to World’s Fair is the short story called “The Writer in the Family”—clearly the same family that figures in the new “novel.” In World’s Fair even the disguising of the names is largely dropped. The young boy is now called Edgar, which is Doctorow’s own first name, while the parents are named after the writer’s own parents, Rose and David. Why Doctorow, having made so close an approach to factuality, bestows the surname of Altschuler on the family is one of the book’s minor mysteries.
Except for five short interludes attributed to Edgar’s mother and to his older brother Donald, World’s Fair is narrated by Edgar himself, in the first person. He begins with his earliest memories—of wetting his bed, of being dried and changed by his mother, and of then being taken into the parental bed; and he concludes with a triumphal chapter in which he, at the age of nine, has won free tickets for himself and his family to the World’s Fair of 1939–1940 for writing an essay (on the theme of the Typical American Boy) in a contest sponsored by the promoters of the fair. His final act is to bury a time capsule of his own, in imitation of the famous time capsule sunk by Westinghouse to show the world of 6939 how we lived. Through all the intervening chapters, the reader is steeped in the dense medium of the child’s consciousness as he struggles to perceive and then achieve his proper place within his close-knit but contentious family.
Most of the contention arises from the radical differences in temperament between the mother, Rose, an intelligent, good-hearted but somewhat imperious woman, and the father, Dave, a man who loves surprises, a small-time …