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Texas Studies in Literature and Language 45.4 (2003) 352-374

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The Waterworks:
E. L. Doctorow's Gnostic Detective Story

Brian Diemert

Readers of E. L. Doctorow's most recent novel City of God (2000) were often puzzled and perhaps disappointed to see that Doctorow, who has long been recognized as a political writer and historical novelist, extended his range of interest from politics and history to an overt investigation of religious questions. 1 Yet such a move was clearly signaled in his preceding novel, The Waterworks (1994), where he used the form of the metaphysical detective story to meditate upon the salient questions of humanity's relationship to the cosmos. What is particularly intriguing is that The Waterworks presents a vision that is heavily marked by gnostic thinking. 2 On one level, we might see this as reflecting a general American perspective; that is, Doctorow may be suggesting, as Harold Bloom does, that gnosticism has become the basic religion of twentieth-century America (Bloom, Omens, 27-28). On another level, however, the gnostic context reminds Americans that, even with the end of the Cold War, there is still no place of grace in the world. I don't propose to analyze The Waterworks as a post-Cold-War cautionary tale, though that may be possible, nor do I want to talk about the novel as an allegory of greed in the Reagan era (Tokarczyk, Doctorow's, 151). 3 Rather, I want to investigate the ways in which Doctorow uses the genre of the detective story to explore metaphysical and spiritual issues, and as a by-product of this examination, I hope to stimulate discussion of this somewhat neglected novel. 4

Doctorow described The Waterworks as "a dark tale that participates in nineteenth-century storytelling conventions staked out by Melville and Poe. It's a mystery of sorts, a scientific detective tale" (Wachtel, 187). His decision to structure the novel as a detective story is fortunate for us since the narrative possibilities of the form invite us to unpack some of the book's more esoteric concerns. For The Waterworks is, among other things, an ironic commentary on the American dream and a postmodern meditation on language, authorship, history, and epistemology—all within the form of the metaphysical detective story. And, as a detective story, The Waterworks is also a story of reading and of interpretation, but here emphasis on mystery and on uncovering what is hidden advances an occult narrative that, in McIlvaine's [End Page 352] ruminations and particularly in the figure of Donne, raises questions pertaining to the spiritual in human affairs. McIlvaine's narrative, we find, has an esoteric subtext that tells a "secret story" 5 involving his failed quest for spiritual truth, personal revelation, and divine knowledge.

Having previously tried his hand at the western, the science fiction novel, and the gangster novel, Doctorow turned in The Waterworks to the detective story, and, indeed, in almost all respects the book represents his closest treatment of the genre. It hardly needs demonstrating that this is so: Edmond Donne is the master sleuth, a sort of Sherlock Holmes, while McIlvaine is his less-able accomplice, the Watson who tells the tale. 6 Moreover, the book contains the two stories that Todorov, for one, sees as typical of detective fiction's narrative structure. We have both the story of the investigation, visible to the reader in the narrative present, and the story of the crime, hidden from the reader though intermittently revealed in the course of the story of the investigation. But The Waterworks is not quite a detective story in the tradition of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, or even, despite Doctorow's mention of him, Edgar Allan Poe. In many ways it seems closer to the work of Wilkie Collins and other sensation novelists who filled the gap between Poe and Doyle when the form of the detective story had yet to be fully defined. Dickens, Collins, Le Fanu, and others, including Poe, drew on the heritage of the gothic and opened their...


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