And all my life I have been trying to escape from my relatives and I have been intricate in my run, but one way or another they are what you come upon around the corner, and the Lord God who is so frantic for recognition says you have to ask how they are and would they like something cool to drink, and what is it you can do for them this time.
Daniel refers to himself as Daniel Lewin most of the time in the narrative, but occasionally he realizes he must take on Isaacson, his familial name - and all that comes with it. He has spent time in the normal, comfortable world of the Lewins. He has married a woman unconnected to his world. He has tried to eschew involvement with the Foundation for Revolution and decried his sister's bold, exhibitionist, and emotive responses to his family's memory. However, despite these examples of reluctance Daniel knows that he cannot escape his family and their legacy. His narrative is his way of coming to terms with them. They are unavoidable, inescapable. They have made Daniel who he is. Indeed, at the march on the Pentagon in October 1967, Daniel reluctantly introduces himself as Daniel Isaacson, a symbolic act that solidifies his acceptance of his name and identity.
Of one thing we are sure. Everything is elusive. God is elusive. Revolutionary morality is elusive. Justice is elusive. Human character. Quarters for the cigarette machine.
This statement from Daniel exemplifies his philosophy. His narrative is a seach for truth but he knows that that search may very well be fruitless. The people he encounters throughout his quest demonstrate that truth differs for each one. Indeed, Daniel never truly learns whether or not his parents are guilty - this eludes him forever. Thus justice is elusive as well, for it is unclear whether or not his parents deserved their fate, or whether Mindish deserved his. For Daniel everything is mutable, fungible, ambiguous, amorphous. This sets the novel firmly within its postmodernist context where the lack of a single, foundational truth predominates.
I am totally deprived of the right to be dangerous. If I were to assassinate the President, the criminality of my family, its genetic criminality, would be established. There is nothing I can do, mild or extreme, that they cannot have planned for.
Daniel feels like a fake revolutionary and that any Leftist action will only be viewed as fulfilling the prophecy of his parents' execution. He declares himself "impotent" by the expectations that he will rebel - just like his parents. His childhood came crumbling down in the public eye and he was forever branded as a child of the Isaacsons - for good and for bad. Leftists assume he will be radical and conservatives assume he is up to no good. Just as his parents could not escape their perceptions, Daniel feels pinned down by his. The Book of Daniel is a search both for truth and also identity; both prove elusive and he has no choice but join the history that unfolds around him.
All societies are armed societies. All citizens are soldiers. All Governments stand ready to commit their citizens to death in the interest of their government.
The novel is unabashed in its depiction of the flaws and cracks in American society during the Cold War. The prejudices, ignorance, anxieties, fears, and pathologies of Americans manifest themselves in the conviction and execution of two of their fellow citizens, mostly because they conveniently represented the "other". In this passage, Daniel speaks about his own complicated relationship with his country. Earlier he explained that this relationship was "constant and degrading" (72) because there was nothing he could do to make an impact or have his voice heard; he was "totally deprived of the right to be dangerous" (72). In this quote he articulates how he believes that it is one's own country who puts him in danger, who tells him who is the enemy, who tells him how he will die. This idea of "dulce et decorum est" is specious, and Daniel, the child of parents killed by their government, knows it.
We tried to share responsibility for my actions. We considered me as our mutual problem. I was shameless.
One of the most disturbing facets of Daniel's personality is how he treats his wife. He revels in exposing her weaknesses, particularly her sexual ones. His first thorough description of her occurs when they are in the middle of intercourse; he describes her as a "sex martyr" and surmises that that is why he married her. Later in the novel he humiliates and frightens her by forcing her to take off their pants while he is driving so he can burn her rear end with a cigarette lighter. Another sexual encounter has Daniel delighting in withholding her orgasm and forcing her to lose all control. His patience with her general personality and perceived lack of social graces bothers him as well - his criticisms about her wanting to use ketchup on her food and the fact that she only married him for his notoriety reinforce his belief that she is not in the same class as him. Despite these problems, Phyllis does not leave Daniel and they continue to work on their marriage. Daniel believes she "got off" on forgiving him and considering him a problem they needed to solve. It is unclear whether Daniel truly loves Phyllis or not, but perhaps the closure provided by his narrative will result in his being a better husband.
The American Left is in this great moment artfully reduced to the shabby conspiracies of a couple named Paul and Rochelle Isaacson.
The American Left, as exemplified by Communist Party members, socialists, anarchists, etc., has never been particularly successful on a grand scale. Scorned and abused from the 1920s-1960s, leftists in America were beleaguered by the American government and fractured by disputes both theoretical and pragamatic from within. Certain figures, such as Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs, and Alger Hiss, attained prominence during their time for the supposed menace they posed to society and later for what they represented about the era's prejudices and pitfalls. What amuses Daniel so much is that his parents were elevated to the scale of masterminds; when his father was arrested he pointed out that his father and mother slept on a foldaway couch-bed. Their home was small and poor. Nothing about them suggested that they were devious perpetrators of espionage and treason. If this is the American Left, Daniel seems to say, then what was the American government so afraid of?
While our life is shrinking, another existence, another dimension, expands its image and amplifies its voices.
This passage, written by Daniel after his father was arrested and before his mother left home and never returned, depicts the particular problems Daniel and Susan faced as the children of the infamous Isaacsons - their personal sorrow and tragedy was spread throughout the media. It was splashed on newspaper headlines, discussed on television, whispered about by their fellow classmates, and, eventually, was codified as a seminal historical moment. The "voices" of everyone else attempt to drown out Daniel's own voice. His Aunt Frieda complains of how Rochelle was responsible for everything. Fanny Ascher accuses the Isaacsons of destroying her husband. Linda shrieks at Daniel that his parents were to blame. Phyllis cries about the self-importance of the family members. Newspaper writers take up the story again. Radicals like Artie Sternlicht assert what was wrong with the way the Isaacsons behaved in the courtroom. Everyone is a voyeur. Daniel has to sift through all of the layers of fact, opinion, memory, and history to find the truth, but the cacophony makes it difficult; he must find his life among the myth. It is hard for any "child of trials" but particularly, as Doctorow makes clear, it is hard to be the child of this one.
Yet they are held to account for it. They are held to account for the Soviet Union. They are held to account for the condition of the world today.
The 1951 Rosenberg trial, which the Isaacson trial is based upon, has since become one of the most embarrassing moments in American history. The fact that the trial was poorly conducted, due process was not respected, and the sentence of death was so severe has led countless historians, novels, journalists, and politicians to delve into the records and archives to show exactly where and how the American justice system failed. Whether or not Julius/Paul and Ethel/Rochelle were guilty or innocent does not technically matter. What does matter is that the prevailing anxieties, tensions, and prejudices of mid-20th century Americans resulted in the conviction and execution of two Americans despite repeated and flagrant violations of their rights. As Ascher puts it in the novel, the Isaacsons are a scapegoat for all of the things Americans perceive as frightening or unexplainable. They are the "other" and are treated as such.
Today Susan is a starfish. Today she practices the silence of a starfish. There are few silences deeper than the silence of the starfish. There are many degrees of life lower before there is no life.
Susan deals with the legacy of her parents in a very different way than Daniel. After throwing herself into radical politics and trying to establish the Foundation for Revolution in her family's name, she attempts suicide in the bathroom of a Howard Johnson's restaurant. When Daniel observes her in the institution, he notes that she resembles a starfish because she is so lifeless, so inert, so silent and immutable. Her suicide attempt eventually brings to fruition her desired result; she dies at the institution where she is housed. Daniel believes his sister died from a "failure of analysis." She could not fully internalize what happened to their parents. Since she was very young when the events of the trial and execution occurred, she became confused (thinking the Shelter was jail) and evinced signs of inner turmoil and want of control (by peeing her pants). In puberty she acted out in an oftentimes sexual fashion. Overall, however, she was an innocent and could not fathom what happened to her parents.
No matter what is laid down there will be people to put their lives on it. Soldiers will instantly appear, fall into rank, and be ready to die for it. And scientists who are happy to direct research to it. And keen-witted academics who in all rationality develop the truth of it. And poets who find their voice in proclaiming the personal feeling of it. And in every house in the land the muscles of the face will arrange in smug knowledge of it. And people will go on and make their living from it. And the religious will pray for a just end to it, in terms satisfactory to it.
Daniel posits that all history is cyclical and predictable. He is among those attempting to find the truth and, intrinsically, is part of the problem. Ultimately, there is no truth that hasn't been perverted by a variety of perception. What has happened to his parents will happen again, there will always be parties on opposite sides of an ideal, and people act out their roles unendingly. Poets will always be poets, soldiers will always be soldiers. At the end of the book, Daniel is disillusioned by the truth but reaches something greater. In understanding that he is powerless to stem the tide of history, he has no choice but to join in. Like Baby's collage, “EVERYTHING THAT CAME BEFORE IS ALL THE SAME.”
This is what happens to us, to the children of trials; our hearts run to cunning, our minds are as sharp as claws. Such shrewdness has to be burned into the eye's soul, it is only formed in fire.
When Daniel visits Linda Mindish, he realizes that she has also been irrevocably affected by the trial. Daniel, Susan, and Linda are paying for the sins of their fathers (and mothers) with the problems they have as adults. Susan is a starfish, her innocence and zeal deadened. Her suicide is her response to her "failure of analysis." Daniel is angry, perverse, sadistic, and indefatigueable about coming to terms with his parents' legacy in his dissertation. Linda has relinquished the radical ideology of her family and embraced a square, whitewashed existence. All three of the children are "locked into their family truths" as Daniel comes to realize. Linda believes the Isaacsons to be the heads of a massive spy network while Daniel is not quite sure of their relative guilt or innocence but knows Mindish was partly responsible for their conviction.
But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end...Go thy way Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.
The last lines of the book can be read both literally (Daniel is to get up, close his book, and go outside) and symbolically (Daniel's quest for truth and healing is over). It is also fitting that Daniel ends with the words from the biblical book of his namesake, for the Book of Daniel has been utilized frequently throughout Doctorow's work. What, then, does the relation between the two Daniels suggest, and why is it important to look at the biblical story's messages? One important thing for readers to take away is that the Old Testament version and its postmodernist version, according to Robert Detweiler, are "cautionary [tales] of what happens when one challenges the state religion (formal or otherwise) and, simultaneously, a prophetic-apocalyptic warning about the personal-civic consequences of not challenging that religion." Another important connection between the two is the idolatry supported by Nebuchadnezzer and the similar idol-worshipping and greed of the American people. Finally, Daniel Isaacson sees himself as a sort of a chosen one or a prophet, much like the biblical Daniel. Both Daniels feel like aliens within their own country.
The Book of Daniel Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Book of Daniel is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Besides, after some thought upon this affair, I considered that if this land was the Spanish coast, I should certainly, one time or other, see some vessel pass or repass one way or other; but if not,...