All the Time in the World

All the Time in the World
E L Doctorow
Little, Brown, 304pp, £12.99

The 12 stories, some old, some new, collected in this volume have no "common mark, or tracer", writes E L Doctorow in a brief, elusive preface. They take in various countries and centuries; some of them are "voiced as testimonies", others are "given to authorial omniscience", and the rest are "more deviously sounded in what is known as the free indirect style". If anything unifies them, it is not, as Doctorow appears to think, "the thematic segregation of their protagonists", but that they were all written by this remarkably nimble historical novelist, who appears no less adept here than in his longer works at pulling off a lyric leap or a sensual sigh. Even in a duff story, Doctorow will revive the flagging reader with an idiosyncratic image or a startling effect.

He believes that it is the short story's "scale" that causes him to "home in on . . . people in some sort of contest with the prevailing world", but it isn't true. In novels such as The Book of Daniel, Loon Lake and City of God, he has described just such a struggle. And when he says that a novel begins in his mind "as something that proposes a meaningful world", whereas a story "usually comes to you as a situation . . . and more or less whole", this doesn't stand up, either. The incident portrayed in Doctorow's story "The Water Works" (not collected here) later became the crucial narrative event in his superb Gothic thriller The Waterworks; one of the stories that make this selection, "Heist", was incorporated into City of God. The novel is the form to which he is both more attracted and attuned.

Yet All the Time in the World shows that Doctorow, who was born in 1931, has improved as a story writer. "Edgemont Drive", a tale about trust, intimacy and compromise told entirely in quick-fire dialogue, and "Assimilation", a tender green-card love story, were both printed in the New Yorker last year. The thrilling opening story, "Wakefield", about a man's sudden retreat from his family, appeared in the same publication two years earlier. It is astonishing that a writer who has shown so little interest in the short story over the years should achieve even belated and intermittent mastery of the form. The book also shows that the short story has served Doctorow as more than just an incubator for potential future novels. It has enabled him to make visits to the present day, to dip his toe in waters into which he wouldn't want to plunge, to improvise and experiment - to discover different Doctorows.

Occasionally the results are folksy or forcedly demotic, but it seems that when Doctorow happens on an appropriate subject and structure, the voice comes with them, in a kind of three-for-two. In the best stories, he hits his stride straight away, without run-up or preamble: "People will say that I left my wife and I suppose, as a factual matter, I did, but where was the intentionality?" ("Wakefield"); "Mama said I was thenceforth to be her nephew, and to call her Aunt Dora" ("A House on the Plains"); "In 1955 my father died with his ancient mother still alive in a nursing home" ("The Writer in the Family"). The difference between these sentences and the enraptured but unpropulsive opening of, say, "Willi" is that they introduce a situation that requires development or explanation.

Yet even when Doctorow sets his feet on uneven ground he can still find the target. "Willi" is a slight and uninvolving tale, a reminiscence of youth that doesn't reveal its setting until the penultimate sentence, but along the way it sounds the Doctorovian note of wonder ("Everywhere I looked, life sprang from something not life"). And the title story, which also takes the form of musings ("What I've noticed: how fast they put up these buildings"), never gets started, but still we get this:

Times Square is unnaturally brilliant in a light brighter than daylight with gigantic signs of sulking models, and cantilevered broadcast studios with flashing call signs, and modern glass tower office buildings reflecting the rainbow colours of the flashing signs and videos - it is all enough to make me want to forget my troubles here with the enormous swaying crowd, of which I am a part, basking as if it were in the radiant sunshine of the Great White Way, outshining the sun and turning the blue sky white.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India