Doctorow writes with a satisfying deftness, keeping his plot progressing at a an almost cinematic pace (indeed, the novel reads in some ways as a draft for a screenplay, although, regrettably, one can’t imagine the Disney corporation having the insight to permit such a movie to be made, more’s the pity). The periodic flashbacks don’t throw off the plot line’s advance; the hypothetical technology seems real and, largely, quite desirable (someone must encode a process for identifying Whuffie, now–speaking of which, whence comes that tag for online reputation?); the neologisms are generally transparent. Though the characters are drawn to be no rounder than the plot requires, they hold our interest and engage our sympathies in subtle ways. Most important, the ideas at stake drive the plot: What does it mean to have a particular identity? What makes an experience particularly moving or enjoyable? What makes Jules’s life meaningful? Doctorow propels readers through an amusement ride of meaning, leaving them exhilarated, tantalized, and eager for more.
He might well have supplied more without overextending the plot. Jules refers often to his days at the University of Toronto, and Doctorow might have offered a fuller picture of that critical phase of the radical social change that the whole book presupposes. Or he might have written out a longer ending, permitting readers to see how the year in Disney World affected Jules in the longer run. Still, one can’t complain about an author who opts to leave readers hungry for more rather than yawning for less. The streamlined narrative conveys part of the disburdened world Jules inhabits.
Critics are comparing Doctorow to Bruce Sterling, Douglas Adams, Neal Stephenson; what excites me about Doctorow is his capacity to work with ideas as Philip K. Dick did, but with significantly greater grace and elan. Compare Down and Out with We Can Build You, not only because both deal with animatronic presidents, but also because both provoke questions about what makes feelings “real,” about manipulation and coercion of assent, about what makes a life meaningful. You will see, I think, that Dick’s brooding brilliance does not overshadow Doctorow’s truer gift for narrative and composition; where Dick got there first, Doctorow makes more of the elements, more satisfactorily. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom breaks through not by virtue of being clever or portentous or literary or slick or even distinctively original, but by virtue of excelling at the job of writing vividly, lightly, about heavy topics–and such breakthroughs (like moving pictures, or flying steel) change things.