“Disneyland at Christmas” provides a detailed description of the famous amusement park as well as a scathing critique of its chicanery, falseness, and superficiality. Daniel describes the layout of the park and its major thematic areas: Tomorrowland (the future), Fantasyland (nursery literature), Adventureland (colonial exploration), Frontierland (the American West), and Main Street, modeled after a picturesque American small town around the turn of the century. It featured the thrill of rides combined with participation in the “mythic rituals of culture.” While the rides were technologically sophisticated, the neighboring flora and fauna were absurdly subpar. The park is always almost always packed to the brim with people.
Various literary and historical figures appear alongside Walt Disney’s own animated creations in the rides and “lands.” Snow White, King Arthur, Alice in Wonderland, Mark Twain, the Swiss Family Robinson, and Abraham Lincoln mingle together in the collapsed world of the park. Many children were unaware of the literary and historical pedigree they were witnessing, and many adults had only a hazy, tenuous connection to the allusions. This created a “separation of two ontological degrees between the Disneyland customer and the cultural artifacts he is presumed upon to treasure in his visit.” Daniel concludes that the ideal Disneyland customer was one who “responds to a process of symbolic manipulation that offers him his culminating and quintessential sentiment at the moment of purchase.”
Disneyland offers mindless thrills and a vapid, shallow promise of culture. The relation to the nation’s past is transmitted in many ways like an electric shock to the body. Where Disneyland truly succeeds is in the movement of large groups of people. The transportation system is impeccable and streamlined. And of course, Disneyland also excels at maintaining a certain type of clientele. As customers and security guards cast a weary eye on his long hair and beard, Daniel is not sure he will even be let into the park.
After Dale speaks privately with a guard and ticket-taker, he, Linda, and Daniel finally venture into the park and make their way toward Tomorrowland, Mindish’s favorite area. When Daniel finally espies the man, he marvels at the changes in his appearance. He looks exceedingly old and his face alternates between childish displays of pugnacity and astonishment as he and his wife drive cars in the Autopia attraction - a ride that mimics the German autobahn.
Having seen the ravaged man, Linda asks Daniel if he still wants to speak to her father. With his assent, she calls to her parents within the ride and explains the situation. Dale waits with Daniel, warning him that Selig Mindish has “nothing left up there.” Finally, Daniel sits with Mindish. Linda kneels by her father, holding his hand. Daniel introduces himself as Daniel Isaacson, Paul and Rochelle’s son. Mindish looks perplexed, lost. But then he smiles, as a moment of clarity dawns on him slowly. His smile vanishes and tears stream down his face. Mindish twice says “Denny?” and then leans forward. Placing his hands on the back of Daniel’s neck, he kisses the top of his head.
Daniel follows this scene with multiple examples of patients who received heart transplants. All of these new hearts, whether within the first day or up to a year later, were rejected.
Daniel continues the story of how he and Susan came to live with the Lewins. After their removal from the East Bronx Shelter, they were sent to live with the Fischers. The situation was unpleasant as the Fischers openly despised the children. Ascher takes them away.
After a few words on electricity, Daniel addresses the reader: “I suppose you think I can’t do the electrocution. I know there is a you. There has always been a you. YOU: I will show you that I can do the electrocution.” Daniel describes his parents’ execution. Paul is brought in to the chamber first. It is obvious that the man is weak and had been crying. Other people were in the room with him, including the warden, the executioner, three guards, a rabbi, two doctors, and three reporters. Paul did not look at them. Unfortunately, no one had rallied to their cause and the execution was unavoidable. Daniel details the process of readying his father for execution. With a hood placed over his head, the electrocution begins. Daniel described the volts of electricity, his father’s body jerking and flailing, and the smell of burning flesh.
Rochelle is brought into the room next and, unlike Paul, she stared at each one of the other people’s faces until they looked away in discomfort. She commanded that the rabbi leave. Her electrocution was administered, but it was revealed that the first dose had not been enough to kill her. Rochelle was electrocuted twice.
The final section of the narrative is entitled “Three Endings.” The first ending is “The House.” As an adult, Daniel goes back to his old house in the Bronx for reasons he could not explain. From a distance, he sees two black children playing outside. Their mother calls them inside, and Daniel briefly considers asking to see the inside but he decides against it.
The second ending is “The Funeral.” It begins with the funeral of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. The funeral was huge and well-attended, with a large police presence and many onlookers. Daniel and Susan –“aristocracy” – rode in a limousine. Ascher introduced them to a young couple, the Lewins, who were to be their new parents. Daniel remembers looking over at young Susan and being filled with brotherly love toward her.
He then cuts to the present day, to a different funeral – Susan’s. Daniel, the Lewins and Phyllis attend. He states bluntly, “my sister is dead. She died of a failure of analysis.” He comments upon the different styles of headstones and plots and then walks throughout the cemetery to commission a few old Jewish men who loitered nearby to come over and sing a few prayers over his sister’s grave. As they pray, Daniel holds Phyllis’s hand and thinks he might cry.
The book concludes in “The Library”. Daniel intends to discuss some of the questions he has raised with this narrative but he is interrupted. A student runs into the library and announces that everyone must leave; the school is being shut down thanks to the efforts of student radicals. The student excitedly tells Daniel, “Close the book, man, what’s the matter with you, don’t you know you’re liberated?”
Daniel leaves off with a title for his dissertation: “A Life Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Doctoral Degree in Social Biology, Gross Entomology, Women’s Anatomy, Children’s Cacophony, Arch Demonology, Eschatology, and Thermal Pollution.” The book concludes with a passage from the Book of Daniel in the Bible, its last few words being: “But thou, of Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book…”
The Disneyland section is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking passages from the novel and offers compelling insights into 20th century American culture. Film producer and animation pioneer Walt Disney conceived of Disneyland in the 1930s and 1940s, inspired by his visits to places like Griffith Park in Los Angeles and his father’s recollections of the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition. Construction began in 1954 and the doors to the park opened in 1955. An immediate success, Disneyland has since become an iconic space of Americana and shared cultural experience. It is not without its detractors, however, and Doctorow, through the words of his narrator Daniel, has much to say about the park’s insidious elements. Daniel offers a takedown of the park by criticizing the fakeness of the plants, animals, and foliage; the swarming crowds; the “separation of two ontological degrees between the Disneyland customer and the cultural artifacts he is presumed upon to treasure in his visit” (288); the “mindless, thrill, like an electric shock” (289) that the park ultimately provides for its guests; and the false sense of connection to America’s past and culture. Daniel’s primary motivation in writing his dissertation and subjecting himself, his wife, and his parents to cruelty is the search for an overarching truth. To Daniel, Disneyland is another example of America’s desire to gloss over ugly truths with imitations.
T.V. Reed’s scholarly article about The Book of Daniel and postmodernity includes an insightful section on what the inclusion of Disneyland in the novel means and why Daniel interprets “the happiest place on Earth” in the manner that he does. For Daniel, “Disneyland represents…the triumph of capitalist technological will over history and memory, the utter commodification of experience. It quotes from various historical moments…collages them into glistening surfaces without depth or affect.” It is similar to Sternlicht’s collage, EVERYTHING THAT CAME BEFORE IS ALL THE SAME, because there is no real history or redemption or dirt. The future, as evinced by Tomorrowland, is a vision of a continuation of the present.
It is an appropriate place for Daniel’s scene of closure with Selig Mindish. Mindish is senile by now and can only recognize Daniel as someone familiar, not as the son of the couple whom he doomed to the electric chair. His kiss, with its strongly biblical suggestion, offers a blessing of the Old Left and the father - it exactly mimics his own father’s kiss. The encounter with Mindish and Susan’s funeral finally convince Daniel that it is impossible to escape the “stories History is telling” and to fully engage in the new story being wrought by the New Left in 1967 and 1968. His participation in the march on the Pentagon and interest in the Columbia student uprisings assures the reader of Daniel’s choice to “[give] himself up to the historical moment, to the ‘structure, diction, and metaphor’ of his time.”
Importantly, the reader must note the fact that Mindish’s senility prevents Daniel from truly discovering what happened to his parents. Their innocence or guilt is forever lost to history and to Daniel. His quest for the truth ends in ambiguity and obfuscation, but it is not without value, for as John Parks writes, “the electric energy of his narrative has ‘resisted’ – an electrical and political term – closing the circuit which leads to death. Avoiding the traps of deadly repetition of meaningless sequence, Daniel composes a book implicating the reader in acts of participation and witness.”
Daniel ends his book with not one ending but three, which is a perfect tribute to his idea that a transitional narrative with its neat conclusion is an ineffective way to tell his story. The first ending reinforces the fact that he literally cannot go home again, as his childhood home in the Bronx is occupied by a new family. In the second ending, he conflates the funerals of his parents and his sister and offers an ironic gesture of having Kaddish (Jewish funeral prayer) read at the gravesite of the nonbelievers in a gesture simulating tradition. The third and final ending ends Daniel’s book/dissertation. He reminds his readers that this command from a fellow radical echoes the command from God for the biblical Daniel; the book must be closed.
Reed ends his article on The Book of Daniel by discussing the novel’s end and the questions it poses. He writes that the fragmented, discontinuous text “lets us know that we can proceed only by giving up the illusion that we can get wholly outside the forms that narrate us.” Daniel’s struggle for truth reaches its limit and demonstrates the difficulties in resisting the “real powers (economic, political) whose determining force is both outside of the stories that tell us.”