E L Doctorow’s The March

The first thing you notice about Doctorow’s The March is the momentum. Like the great military march that it seeks to describe, Doctorow’s new novel is a relentless procession, driven, energetic, overwhelming. Characters drop in and out of the book, joining the forward drive of the plot, staying with The March for a while, and then dropping out. But the key protagonist of the book is the march itself – an entity that Doctorow himself compares to a long, hungry organism, scrounging its way through the country in search of victory.

The March is Doctorow’s novel about the sweeping advance of Sherman’s army through the states of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina – a march that was, arguably, critical to the eventual defeat of the confederate forces in the Civil war (for more on this, see the current issue of the New York Review of Books, which has an article by James M McPherson on the partnership between Grant and Sherman – unfortunately available only to subscribers). Doctorow’s perspective on the march is intensely personal though, and the book populates the march with a cast of varied characters – including a white-skinned African American girl, a ruthlessly professional doctor, a young Southern woman who joins the Union army as a nurse, a Confederate soldier turned spy with delusions of grandeur and many others. The key point about the book though is that through it all Doctorow sticks faithfully to the march – the point where the characters leave the march is also the point where they leave the book.

It’s this that makes the book as compelling as it is – the stories themselves are intelligent but unremarkable (they have a strangely ubiquitous quality, as though you’d read the same thing somewhere before) but it’s the breathlessness with which the action speeds past, the blending of some achingly lovely and telling scenes with this almost unswerving pace, that makes this book (or at least the first two sections of it) an exciting read. Doctorow conveys the propulsive genius of the march beautifully, and his vignettes blend tender irony with honest heartbreak.

If only he’d kept it up. Where the novel begins to let one down is in the third section, where the action flags and then dies away. In part, I suspect, this is deliberate, and reflects the tiredness of these men who have marched so far and so long to arrive finally at a victory that they are too weary to even exult in. As the joy at the Confederate surrender is tempered by the bitter news about Lincoln’s assassination, the sombre note that the book ends on seems justified, even exact. The real trouble, though, is that by the end of the book Doctorow abandons many of his more interesting characters and instead focuses much of the action on the historical figures themselves – on Sherman, on Lincoln. This, I think, is a mistake, not only because it severely limits the imagination that Doctorow is able to bring to bear on the plot, but also because it means that Doctorow begins to take the whole thing very seriously, so that the balance between the light-hearted and the tragic is destroyed and the novel descends into a sort of brooding melancholy from which Doctorow is never quite able to recover it. Besides, by this point Doctorow’s piling of coincidence upon coincidence to make the stories of the different characters tie together has become cloying. It’s a huge march, after all, there are literally tens of thousands of men on the move, yet somehow the paths of the various characters go on intersecting. It’s not that this is hard to believe (though it does strain the credulity at times) it’s also that it’s unnecessary – Doctorow could just as easily have kept the characters apart and it would have been a better book for it.

As it is, The March is, for the large part, a powerful, driven book, not perhaps so moving as simply full of movement, a stream of wonderful images that will hold you in rapt attention and convey both the urgency and the despair of a crucial time in American history.