The process of reading a book, no matter how long it takes you to read one, is a different kind of commitment than any other entertainment medium can give you, even if you're sitting down to a marathon session with your favorite movies or TV series. With a book, it's a matter of following another person's imagination. Since reading is as much about imagination as writing, when you're in that kind of conflux, it can sometimes prove more interesting than you might have thought at the start of the book.
E.L. Doctorow's The March is about Sherman's march through the South during the Civil War. The way I learned it, this was a bloody rampage. It's a good subject to explore in a novel, then, the various perspectives that can arise from examining it on a more intimate level. Doctorow is an acclaimed and accomplished and awarded writer, and yet I found that I began to question his choices. Mostly he ignores the Southern perspective, even though many of his characters come from the region Sherman leads Union forces through in his campaign. One of them is a deranged maniac who doesn't represent anyone. Another is a white-skinned black woman. There's also the daughter of a respected citizen, realizing that his death took her former life away from her. Each of them gets caught up in the march, folded into its narrative while losing their own. In a way, it's supposed to be a metaphor about how we lose ourselves in the grip of a bigger story, but I kept hoping that Doctorow would acknowledge some of the subtleties rather than generalizing everything.
All of his characters are marginalized individuals. They really don't represent anyone but themselves. Even William Tecumseh Sherman himself is lost in the Doctorow shuffle. He becomes a depressed strategist, who's surviving his own march, a duty that doesn't seem like warfare so much as continuous occupation. In a lot of ways, it feels like Doctorow was really writing about the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that were underway while he wrote this book, though he never gets around to making that obvious. He doesn't make anything obvious, and yet instead of being profound it just comes off as lazy, the way some of his sentences come off seeming like they were written by an amateur, not someone of his stature. This isn't a style. The way Thomas Pynchon writes is a deliberate style, so too with Cormac McCarthy.
Yet it is fascinating. It's the story of the realities of war, even if doesn't accomplish what I hoped it would. These marginalized figures are all opportunists, even when they don't realize that this is exactly what they are. The war is pretty much beside the point. These are characters who are just making the best of a bad situation. If the book loses a specific relevance to the Civil War while it attempts to explain how slaves can transition to a different kind of existence, if it loses its sense of time and place as Doctorow fails to convince the reader that they're following what the majority of people would have experienced at that time, then it becomes a different kind of story entirely. If it's not about the war, then it's Doctorow telling us a traditional Southern narrative of a different kind, his version of Mark Twain. That's what The March boils down to.
It could have been so much better. Suppose that Doctorow kept these characters and these stories, but expanded them, added more, written more. This could have easily been his opus. Instead at times it just feels as if he were writing from history notes. It's like a sketch of something greater. Still, a sketch worth reading.