A note on the style of The Book of Daniel. The perspective and narrative structure of the novel alternate between two significant timelines and voices. In the first book, Memorial Day, the main thrust of the action takes place after the suicide attempt of Daniel Lewin's sister Susan. The voice shifts between Daniel’s first-person narration and a third-person narration that is interpreted as the dissertation that Daniel is writing to complete his graduate studies at Columbia University. The events unfolding after Susan’s suicide attempt take place in 1967. The contemporary action alternates with scenes from Daniel’s childhood in 1950s New York. All narration is written in present tense.
When The Book of Daniel begins, Daniel is working on his dissertation in one of the Browsing Rooms of a Columbia University library. He begins recounting Memorial Day in 1967, when he, his young wife Phyllis, and their infant son head from New York to Massachusetts.
In 1967, Daniel is twenty-five years old with curly hair, glasses, a mustache, and a cool, casual demeanor that suggests a leftist. Phyllis is nineteen, blonde, petite, and friendly. Daniel’s parents did not support his marriage to Phyllis because she is significantly younger than their son and largely uneducated.
Daniel and his family hitchhike to Worchester State Hospital. As they get closer to the institution, the witnessed several of its denizens waiting to get on a bus; their mental illnesses, in a variety of forms, are quite apparent. Daniel frequently interrupts his narration of events by appealing to the reader in first-person or through the inclusion of historical facts loosely related to the action, but connected thematically to his current life or childhood. At this point, he provides a summary of the Bible’s Book of Daniel, writing that it contains familiar stories but that many of its chapters “record weird dreams and visions which have baffled its readers for centuries.”
Daniel returns to his narrative and writes of the evening before the trip to Worchester. That night, he and Phyllis have sex in their apartment when the phone rings. Daniel wonders if his detailed and coarse descriptions of Phyllis’s body and his mental state when they have sex would prejudice the reader against him.
Returning to the day of the hospital visit, Daniel describes the half-empty buildings of the institution. Susan is in the lounge watching television; her trademark gold-rimmed glasses are gone and she was dressed in a hospital gown. She looks terrible and small to Daniel, especially when he espies the bandages on her wrists. The two siblings sit in silence until Susan turns to her brother and says, “They’re still fucking us…Goodbye Daniel. You get the picture.” As Daniel watches his parents’ car drive up, he marvel’s at Susan’s ability to provoke in him both a sense of family and irrelevance. He admires how Susan had always given vent to her “definite feelings” by embracing loudness, her intelligence, drugs, sex, anger, and before those, a faith in God. He feels despair at what “they” have done to his sister by wrecking her hair, taking her glasses, and dressing her in a shoddy robe.
Daniel then turns to God as a character in the Bible, whom he notes was “almost always concerned with the idea of his recognition by mankind.” With this in mind, he recalls the story of Daniel, a man who interpreted the dreams and visions of pagan kings. He served during the reigns of three kings and survived being thrown to the lions. As his life nears an end, Daniel experienced dreams of his own that were beyond his interpretation. Daniel Lewin concludes of his namesake, “so much for Daniel, Beacon of Faith in a Time of Persecution.”
Daniel is furious that he cannot simply take his sister from the hospital, even though he knows his (adopted) parents Robert Lewin, an attorney who represents the disenfranchised, and his wife Lise, would not approve. The nurse explains that Susan must be officially released and the hospital has yet to even write up the admitting diagnosis. Alan Duberstein, Susan’s therapist whom Daniel despises, accompanies the Lewins to the hospital. Robert and Alan discuss ways of getting Susan out while Lise sits next to Phyllis. Phyllis feels gratified by this gesture, as she is finally included within the family. Robert laments that Susan’s “defection” was his fault. Daniel reflects on his father’s hard-working nature, general popularity, and kindness. He feels it is tragic that Robert and Lise loved he and Susan so much when they were such awful people. As he sits musing upon these matters, he feels a degree of gratitude toward his sister for alleviating the boredom of his graduate work.
Daniel switches gears and writes about Bukharin’s trial in 1938 at the hand of Stalin and his Central Committee. He wonders why “the facts of Russian national torment make Americans feel smug?” He then wonders why a young woman who was found in a Howard Johnson’s bathroom bleeding to death would be taken to an insane asylum rather than a hospital. Daniel creates a list of seven subjects to be discussed in his narrative: the picture poster found in Susan’s car’s front seat; a terrible scene at a Christmas in a Brookline house; his “mad grandma and the big black man in the cellar;” the Lewins; the fact that he, Daniel, is a betrayer “who betrays for no reason” and may just be looking for another father figure; Artie the Revolutionary; and the Isaacson Foundation. Though 1967 is a year of political and social turmoil, Daniel is more troubled by the visions within his own head.
Daniel then turns to a memory of he and Susan in their youth. On this cold New York day, Ascher, the family’s lawyer, pulls the children from Bryant Park to Times Square. Ascher explains to them that they should be proud because they are attending a tribute – what is later identified as a protest for their parents. Susan and Daniel struggle to keep up. They finally reach a large, chaotic crowd. Traffic diverted, policemen on horses are everywhere, amplified voices speak from the stage, and applause rings out. Ascher pushes them through the crowd, proclaiming, “Those are the children!” Daniel and Susan are scared and dizzy as they are pulled up on stage. A chant rises from the crowd. “Free them, free them.”
After this anecdote, Daniel turns to his theory that in America after a war, the coalitions and compromises that existed during wartime give way to partisanship, violence, and passion instead of reason. The emotional fervor of wartime cannot simply go away so it is manifested in this phenomenon. Daniel notes how this occurred after WWI in particular; the 1920s saw labor strikes, red scares, the Espionage and Sedition Acts, the Palmer raids, the recrudescence of the KKK, immigration laws, prohibition, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, and more.
Daniel returns to the aftermath of Susan’s suicide attempt. He, Duberstein, Phyllis, the baby, and the Lewins go to the Howard Johnson restaurant where Susan slashed her wrists. Duberstein thinks her suicide attempt is due to her political activities, like being involved in SDS. Daniel is irritated with Duberstein and his wife, whom he suspects of “having found it thrilling to marry into a notorious family.” He believes Duberstein is an intruder into his family and resented his parents’ reproach of his icy behavior. His parents were above all concerned with civility and morality.
After snapping at Duberstein to “screw off” Daniel leaves the dining room and retreats into the restroom where Susan tried to kill herself. After a solemn moment, he goes outside to find Susan’s Volvo in the parking lot. Through the window, he sees a plaid suitcase and wrapping for a pack of Gillette razors. He imagines the scene and what it must have been like for the woman who found Susan. Memories of how good life used to be with the Lewins when “hope was not tested” yet floods his mind. To Daniel, he and Susan are the only ones left and no matter how hard they try to avoid the legacy of their real parents, they are always lurking around the corner.
The Book of Daniel is arguably E.L. Doctorow’s most famous novel, and with good reason. It is a brilliant, insightful, and taut look at of one of America’s most ignominious moments – the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for suspected treason – through the eyes of one of their children. In this fictionalized account of their lives, deaths, and legacy (here the Rosenbergs are imagined as Paul and Rochelle Isaacson) as told by their son Daniel, the horror of this tragedy and its influence on both he and his sister as well as on America unfolds in a year that finds that country on the cusp of radical change.
Daniel Lewin narrates the novel from the Columbia University library. He often switches from third-person to first-person, sometimes speaks directly to the reader, veers off the chronological course to insert memories from childhood and also random thoughts, provides long passages on biblical and modern history, and breaks up his text with lists and new sections with enigmatic titles. His awareness of how his narrative will be perceived permeates the text as well. All of this designates The Book of Daniel as a postmodern novel. Postmodernism in literature, while a complex and sometimes controversial subject, has certain recognizable tenets. These include, but are not limited to: an eschewing of the search for meaning; a focus on playfulness, irony, and dark humor; intertextuality; pastiche; an undermining of the authority of the author; a collapse between history and fiction; and paranoia. The Book of Daniel exemplifies most of these; the narrative is fragmented, it uses historical facts and real people in a work of fiction, and Daniel’s perception of the events in his life is colored by a blasé, ironic point of view.
The character of Daniel is a complicated one, but much about him is clear right away. He is highly intelligent but has a perverse, impatient, and angry streak. He is suspicious of almost everyone around him, excepting his sister and his adopted parents, whom he loves but realizes can never truly understand him and Susan. While he loves his wife, she will also always be an outsider. Even sex is an act that, ironically, separates him from her. His cruelly analytical mind never stops working. This separation from his wife and adopted parents is no surprise to Daniel, of course. He knows that “the thing about the Isaacson family, the thing about everyone in our family, is that we’re not nice people” (27).
The terrible tragedy of their parents’ death has taken an immense toll on both Daniel and his sister; this is one of the novel’s major themes and will be discussed in further analyses as well. From the beginning, however, this theme is readily apparent. Daniel feels compelled to write about his parents’ story while his sister attempts suicide in the bathroom of a Howard Johnson. At this point in the novel, Susan’s suicide is still for unknown reasons, although her therapist Duberstein speculates that it is somehow her involvement with radical student organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that pushed her over the edge. All Susan has uttered thus far is “They’re still fucking us,” a phrase which Daniel puzzles over several times. The “they” is unclear at this point, and Susan’s suicide appears to be one of the central mysteries readers will have to parse out.
A final note about the opening pages (there are no clear chapters, only four large sections, or Books). The present-day of the narrative is 1967, an extremely tumultuous year in American history that was succeeded by an even more tumultuous year. Daniel is very concerned with historical continuity and patterns; he gives a long description of how the tensions and problems of the 1920s were a direct response to the sudden absence of wartime fervor that characterized the First World War. The execution of his parents (and the real-life Rosenbergs, of course) took place in 1953; the decade of the 1950s, like the 1920s, also featured intense conflict, repression, and most importantly, fear of communism and immigrants. The 1960s was in many ways a response to that decade; the civil rights, student, and women’s movements rose to prominence and attempted to startle a complacent and tepid nation into awareness of its legacies of oppression and exclusion. Daniel and Susan are heavily involved with such movements while Phyllis represents another current of dissension - the flower child, hippie, peacenik lifestyle. Doctorow brings the 1950s and 1960s to life in this novel and exposes their high points and their weaknesses.