Starfish, the third book, begins with a section written in Paul’s voice. Daniel attempts to imagine and recreate his father’s thoughts as they unfold while he awaits trial. Paul thinks about individuals in history, including Socrates and Jesus, who were tried for treason. He ruminates on the corruptness of the law and its ultimate manifestation in the trial, which in turn validated law itself. He and Ascher enter the courtroom for the selection of the jurors. He sees Rochelle writing on a pad and notes that his judge is Judge Hirsch, a Jewish man who desires to be on the Supreme Court one day. Howard “Red” Feuerman, the Chief U.S. Attorney, is a young man, perhaps Paul’s age.
He tries to remain calm, cool and collected in the courtroom. He believes that the people judging him are all human beings and would do their jobs with honor. He remembers that, as a child, his teacher told him he had the straightest salute to the flag. This was ironic, as he is now to be tried as an enemy of that flag. As he settles into serenity and clarity, he reads an encouraging note from his wife that is passed to him. Paul reflects on prison and the terror that comes with being caged, unable to leave: “The more insane and infuriating and ridiculous the fact that you must stay in this cage, the more it is true.” This is why, when criminals in jail finally relax, they realize they are “doing time.”
The narrative switches to Rochelle’s voice, again written in present tense by Daniel. She and Paul meet with Ascher to discuss Feuerman and the upcoming trial. She is worried about her husband, who is growing thin and has adopted a hysterical toughness. Ascher tells her not to worry, but his words and heavy hand on her shoulder do nothing to diminish her anxiety. She knows that, in their trial, the normal rules of evidence introduction are irrelevant; all that must be proved is the intention to commit treason. Whatever Mindish says on the stand would be admitted as evidence against them as long as he is proven competent. In her own jail cell the night before the trial begins, she writes a letter to Paul – which Daniel includes (or invents) in the narrative. She is almost relieved that the trial is upon them, and she looks forward to being near him at the defense table.
The next section, entitled “Falling”, continues in Rochelle’s perspective and traces the courtship and early love between her and Paul. It depicts the workers’ rallies and political discussions held in Union Square and how she fell in love with him at a Loyalist rally on Convent Avenue. Their early life together was innocent and sweet; they were both virgins and found a thrill merely in a look or a touch from the other person. They were too poor and the world needed their help too much to be bothered by sex. She loved the “arrogance from this skinny boyfriend” and their deep connection. She knew he would not have a serious career in the revolution and that he was not a practical person, but they were both committed to the Party and each other.
Daniel includes more letters written between Paul and Rochelle during the trial. Paul observes the unctuous arrogance of Feuerman and the fact that almost everyone connected with the trial is Jewish; he surmises that their own self-hatred is responsible for their fevered attacks on the Isaacsons. In her women’s prison, Rochelle is respected by the other inmates. She tries to maintain her habits of personal cleanliness. She cries at night because she “is so clearly one of them and the cellblock has unquestionably become her home.”
Daniel includes a memo written by Ascher concerning Selig Mindish’s arrival in the US following World War One.
Rochelle knows what the outcome of the trial will be but she fears the penalty. As the trial progresses, she realizes that the harshness of her own feelings for the people in the court would be mirrored in the harshness of the punishment for her and Paul. Rochelle discusses the meaning of treason with Ascher and becomes aware that even though due process was waived for this trial, “it will not protect them from the punishment that can be meted out to those convicted of the worst possible crime against their country.”
Rochelle thinks of Mindish and decides that she only has one question left, and he is the one to answer it. She and Paul were not the same people anymore, and if they ever made it through the trial and were released, their children would not be the same; it would be exceedingly difficult to begin their lives again. She had thought of Mindish for months, remembering his shoddy dentistry that was welcome simply because it was nearly free, his harmless admiration of her body, his dull life and wife, and how he ultimately took one more liberty for the friendship and the low fees he charged - “he took our lives.” Rochelle grew bitter listening to the lies told each week at the trial. She wonders if Ascher would be able to prove that Mindish was really a spy and had a double life.
In this section Daniel constructs the thoughts and actions of his parents while they are in prison. Even though the reader may fall into the trap of thinking they are reading Paul and Rochelle’s actual thoughts, it is important to remember that, as with most of the novel, it is through Daniel that they must approach all other characters. While Daniel no doubt has uncovered many accounts of what happened and has access to some of his parents’ correspondence and texts from the trial, there is no way he can know what was going on inside their minds. This literary technique is similar to one deployed by Philip Roth in his award-winning novel American Pastoral.
Indeed, literary critics often compare Roth and Doctorow to one another in terms of identity and themes. Both are Jewish Americans and, unsurprisingly, often write about Jewish Americans. Both employ experimental structures in their novels. Both have written about the 1960s and seek to engage with historical events and people. Both present savage accounts of what life in America following the Second World War was truly like. Their strong literary voices and incredible intuitiveness have resulted in numerous awards and acclaim – and popularity.
As this section proceeds, Paul and Rochelle’s lives are inexorably heading toward the electric chair. Their fates are almost sealed. Rochelle comments that she always knew that they would be convicted but was unsure of what the eventual punishment would be. Electricity, then, is a powerful motif in this novel. The critic T.V. Reed writes that “ubiquitous electoral metaphors come to embody the simultaneously destructive and productive nature of power. The electrical metaphor becomes pervasive until it takes on a kind of ominousness even in mundane places. Daniel’s mad grandmother has hair with ‘waves…like electric wire’; at their trial, Rochelle Isaacson feels the ‘electricity of rage’; Daniel experiences radio music as ‘electrification of the air’; Paul Isaacson is described as ‘tireless, full of electricity.’”
Electricity lights the library where Daniel works but also killed his parents. This simple fact makes him wonder if he is somehow complicit in their death every time he flips a light switch. Electricity is important and problematic. According to Geoffrey Galt Harpham, it can be seen as a “common principle of desire that gives the narrative cohesion and the odor of the ideal. In each significant reference to electricity, this narrative paradox is reinscribed: as the price for a desirable ideality and coherence, reality is deadened.” When an electrical current enters Susan at the asylum, she performs a dance that looks as if she is having an attack. A more symbolic electric current enters the bedroom of Paul and Rochelle and animates their intercourse and their Passion (here intended to refer to Christ’s passion). Their electrocution at the end of the novel is foreshadowed by their “electrocution” here.
Finally, electricity is not the only motif that bears analysis - fire is also a significant motif that is used to prepare the reader for the Isaacsons’ execution and Daniel’s own assumption of the role of executioner. Daniel dreams of his parents’ arrest and of a funeral pyre; he does not want to sleep at night for fear of his house burning down; fire and cold combine to create a particular horror as his father is arrested; revolution and cold are equated during the encounter with Artie Sternlicht; Daniel uses fire to burn his wife’s rear end, etc. These examples of fire point at to the electrocution of the Isaacsons, a veritable “burning.” Daniel also grasps this power by burning his wife. Clearly, fire in the novel is an evil and insidious power that delivers an even more powerful burst of physical and/or emotional pain.