Excerpt from City of God by E.L. Doctorow, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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City of God

by E.L. Doctorow

City of God
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2000, 320 pages
    Jan 2001, 320 pages

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So the theory has it that the universe expanded exponentially from a point, a singular space/time point, a moment/thing, some original particulate event or quantum substantive happenstance, to an extent that the word explosion is inadequate, though the theory is known as the Big Bang. What we are supposed to keep in mind, in our mind, is that the universe didn't burst out into pre-existent available space, it was the space that blew out, taking everything with it in a great expansive flowering, a silent flash into being in a second or two of the entire outrushing universe of gas and matter and darkness-light, a cosmic floop of nothing into the volume and chronology of spacetime. Okay?

And universal history since has seen a kind of evolution of star matter, of elemental dust, nebulae, burning, glowing, pulsing, everything flying away from everything else for the last fifteen or so billion years.

But what does it mean that the original singularity, or the singular originality, which included in its submicroscopic being all space, all time, that was to voluminously suddenly and monumentally erupt into concepts that we can understand, or learn-what does it mean to say that ... the universe did not blast into being through space but that space, itself a property of the universe, is what blasted out along with everything in it? What does it mean to say that space is what expanded, stretched, flowered? Into what? The universe expanding even now its galaxies of burning suns, dying stars, metallic monuments of stone, clouds of cosmic dust, must be filling ... something. If it is expanding it has perimeters, at present far beyond any ability of ours to measure. What do things look like just at the instant's action at the edge of the universe? What is just beyond that rushing, overwhelming parametric edge before it is overwhelmed? What is being overcome, filled, enlivened, lit? Or is there no edge, no border, but an infinite series of universes expanding into one another, all at the same time? So that the expanding expands futilely into itself, an infinitely convoluting dark matter of ghastly insensate endlessness, with no properties, no volume, no transformative elemental energies of light or force or pulsing quanta, all these being inventions of our own consciousness, and our consciousness, lacking volume and physical quality in itself, a project as finally mindless, cold, and inhuman as the universe of our illusion.

I would like to find an astronomer to talk to. I think how people numbed themselves to survive the camps. So do astronomers deaden themselves to the starry universe? I mean, seeing the universe as a job? (Not to exonerate the rest of us, who are given these painful intimations of the universal vastness and then go about our lives as if it is no more than an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History.) Does the average astronomer doing his daily work understand that beyond the celestial phenomena given to his study, the calculations of his radiometry, to say nothing of the obligated awe of his professional life, lies a truth so monumentally horrifying-this ultimate context of our striving, this conclusion of our historical intellects so hideous to contemplate-that even one's turn to God cannot alleviate the misery of such profound, disastrous, hopeless infinitude? That's my question. In fact if God is involved in this matter, these elemental facts, these apparent concepts, He is so fearsome as to be beyond any human entreaty for our solace, or comfort, or the redemption that would come of our being brought into His secret.

At dinner last night, code name Moira. After having seen her over the course of a year or two and having spoken to her only briefly, always with the same sign within myself, I have come to recognize some heightened degree of attention, or a momentary tightness in the chest, perhaps, or a kind of, oddly, nonsexual arousal, that usually gives way in a moment to a sense of loss, to a glimpse of my own probably thrown away life, or more likely of the resistant character of life itself in refusing to be realized as it should be ... I understood as I found myself her dinner partner why, finally, it was worthwhile to endure a social life in this crowd.

Excerpted from City of God by E. L. Doctorow. Copyright© 2000 by E. L. Doctorow. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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