All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow; Random House, 277 pages, $26. For many years, I have been telling whoever would listen that the truly great version of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" wasn't the play or the movie or even the best-selling and influential novel but rather the remarkable, not-quite-novella-length digest of the novel that brilliant editor Ted Solataroff created to debut in his remarkable New American Review. It remains, to me, haunting in a way that the novel, as brilliant as it was, never quite was.
Doctorow's fame is almost entirely based on his oft-filmed novels from "Welcome to Hard Times" and his Rosenberg family novel "The Book of Daniel" on through "Ragtime," "Billy Bathgate," and the, as yet, unfilmed "City of God," "The March" and "Homer and Langley." But he may be a much more striking writer in short form, especially in these short stories, some of which eventually turned into novels.
Doctorow's preface explains why this might be so. Novels begin in tiny pieces of conversation or bits of music etc. "The act of writing a novel," he says, "is in the nature of an exploration. You write to find out what you're writing. And as you work, the sentences become generative, the book begins to emerge and itself participates in the composition, telling you what it is."
"A story, by contrast, usually comes to you as a situation, with the characters and setting irrevocably attached to it. Stories are assertive, they are self-announcing, their voice and circumstances decided and immutable."
I'd submit Doctorow, the transcriber of the immutable, is far more cogent than the large form explorer.
This is the way "Selected Stories" are done in the modern world -- six new stories never collected before added on to a full representation of stories from a very long writing life (see Charles Baxter's superb "Gryphon and Other Stories," which, like his novel "The Soul Thief" draws on his life teaching in Buffalo). Doctorow is a writer who always seems to come as a surprise, even to those who've read a lot of him.
-- Jeff Simon