E.L. Doctorow: All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories (Random House, 2012, 304 pgs.): Doctorow belongs to an odd cadre of the American literati, that of the old pro, righteously formal in the tradition of John Cheever, a writer whose narrators—regardless of their educational background—have the diction of an Ivy League professor. For some of these first-person narrators, it works, though Doctorow conveniently slips into third-person when the subjects-in-question can’t quite muster the linguistic articulateness he desires to employ. There is no shortage of intriguing scenarios: a successful lawyer spontaneously abandons his life only to watch his family as a stowaway mere feet from his house. An immigrant dishwasher agrees to a green card marriage with a Mafioso’s niece in order to financially support his aspirations as a musician. An all-dialogue piece between a bickering couple receive a strange guest in the form of a widower poet who once lived in their current home. A man going about his day suddenly feels as though he is trapped in a Matrix-esque program in the collection’s loudest metafictional performance.
Like a certain strain of British writers—most notably Forster—Doctorow writes tales that, while technically flawless with dexterous, pretty prose, feel more like the simulation of a short story rather than an actual one. And as much as a slight as that might seem, I don’t mean it that way: I enjoyed many of the stories here, feel they’re worth rereading and recommending to those interested, but it’s impossible for me to not feel like these are compositions rather than stories, meaning that Doctorow built them the way a construction crew would: according to a preplanned design, rather than exploring possibilities like an architect erasing a support beam when he realizes it can’t bear the weight.