HOMER & LANGLEY by E. L. Doctorow

Book Quote:

“There are moments when I cannot bear this unremitting consciousness. It knows only itself. Awake, I am in a continuum with my dreams. I feel my typewriters, my table, my chair to have that assurance of a solid world, where things take up space, where is not the endless emptiness of insubstantial thought that leads to nowhere but itself. My memories pale as I prevail upon them again and again. They become more and more ghostly. I fear nothing so much as losing them altogether and having only my blank endless mind to live in.”

Book Review:

Review by Vesna McMaster (SEP 6, 2010)

As one reads Homer & Langley and is swept along on its strange tide, one tries to raise one’s head intermittently to admire the craft. But that craft is, like the shoes made by the elves in story, so seamless, so perfect, that it’s hard to grasp until one is deposited on the other shore and left to linger for a while.

The novel uses the theme of the real-life case of the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, who lived on 5th Avenue in New York from the 1880s to 1947. A case of great notoriety, the brothers (suffering from extreme compulsive hoarding disorder) effectively mewed themselves up within their house. Over the decades this filled with newspapers, collections of mainly non-functional items, and garbage. They disassociated themselves from the outside world to the extent that their electricity and water supplies were cut off – a situation they did not attempt to rectify. After their death (caused directly by the accumulated items within the house), over 100 tons of hoarded rubbish were removed from the house.

The case is of such notoriety that dramatisations and fictionalisations of it abound. Novels include Marcia Davenport’s My Brother’s Keeper (1954) and Franz Lidz’s 2003 Ghostly Men (a history of the brothers). Stephen King used details from the story in Salem’s Lot (1975). Movies either based on or inspired partially by the story include “Unstrung Heroes” (1995), a movie based on Ghostly Men. References to the case crop up in numerous TV serials, and at least six plays have been based directly or loosely on the story. It is so well documented there is little point in listing them all again here. Suffice it to say, the case is well-known.

Unlike the bulk of writing pertaining to this case, Doctorow does not focus on the squalor and scandal of the situation: those aspects which are most titillating to the popular media and the public. The first-person narrator, Homer (“I’m Homer, the blind brother”) recounts the past years of their life within the house with a diction so gentle, so unassuming, thoughtful and musical that it is well into the narrative before we start to suspect things are seriously amiss. The novel pretty much comments on itself when Homer’s “Muse” Jacqueline (the French reporter) tells him:

“There is music in words, and it can be heard you know, by thinking. (…) You think a word and you can hear its sound. (…) words have music and if you are a musician you will write to hear them.”

The sound of Homer & Langley is of a soft voice by a fireside, never too fast or too loud, and always considerate of the listener. The strange narrative is gripping not because of drastic happenings or fast action, but because one doesn’t want to get up from that fireside, or stop listening to the voice.

This is not to ignore the laconic humour that pervades most of the book. The tone is so deferential and quiet that quirky tongue-in-cheek moments creep up on us unexpectedly. It’s ambiguous, though, as to how much self-awareness Homer has. As to whose tongue is in their cheek, Homer’s or Doctorow’s, is not always entirely clear.

Despite its genteel tone and historical setting, the impression Homer & Langley gives by the end of the narrative is that it has more in common with typically post-apocalyptic settings and themes than with fin-de-siecle writing, the latter of which it more closely resembles superficially. Why?

One of its main themes is consumerism. Langley’s grand “Theory of Replacements” which leads to the disastrous accumulation of junk inside the house states that “everything is replaced.” Children are replacements for their parents, current events are merely a cycle of typecasts which endlessly repeat each other: as one is forgotten, another immediately takes its place. Langley, however, is a mass of contradictions. Despite his cherished theory, none of the myriad of items he brings into his own house are ever “replaced” – they merely get buried. The brothers cannot find anything useful they know they have (such as candles in a black-out) because they have long-since been covered in other items.

Langley’s fatalistic view is that as humanity is such a polluter and exploiter, the sooner it blows itself up the better, as it will make way for some other more worthwhile species. This tends to be the conclusion that novels of apocalyptic devastation often pose, and generally stems (as in this case) from a direct disgust with consumerism and bureaucratised waste. Langley, however, is also the ultimate consumer: always acquiring, never passing anything on. It is in this way that Langley’s own theory of greed bringing about the demise of mankind is fulfilled in miniature within his own house, when he is finally overwhelmed by his own falling booby-trap of junk.

Langley’s more confrontational nature in response to the pressures of the modern is the perfect foil, however, to what is possibly the main focus: the world of Homer, the narrator. What seems at first to be a gentle narration of a stoic, romantic individual turns slowly towards us until we finally see it for what it is: a comment on the process of growing old. At this point, it is useful to look at which aspects of this story the author has decided to change.

Most pointedly, he has made Homer blind at a much younger age than in reality. Homer Collyer actually lost his sight at the age of 52, not 14 as in the novel. By depriving the character of visual input at this age, Doctorow effectively chrysalises part of his psyche into the innocence of a sheltered pubescent boy, to highlight his lack of culpability for the famous squalor surrounding him. It emphasises his idealism and romanticism. Another significant detail which has been altered is that it was actually Langley who was the musician, not Homer. Homer, on the other hand, was the one with law skills, not Langley as in the book. The allocation of all “sharper” capabilities like law to Langley, and the more sensitive ones to Homer again help to accentuate his romantic innocence.

So why is it so important that Homer is not culpable? His role is to observe the progress of time and not to alter it – and once again, here facts have been adjusted dramatically to accentuate the effect. In the novel, the brothers live on in their house well into the 1970s, possibly the 80s (making them almost a century old), when in fact they both died in 1947. Doctorow has extended their lives by decades to emphasise the difference between the life they knew as children and the situation they find themselves at the end of it. As boys they rode in horse-drawn carriages and the streets had the organic smell of manure and leather. By the end Homer is nearly knocked down by a passing car, the air is filled with exhaust fumes and the Cold War creates global fear.

The passage of time brings changes, which the brothers try to interpret in their own way. People come in and out of the house; lives are touched briefly, but always revert to the status of the two of them, together in their isolation. And as the junk accumulates, the isolation increases.

Because Homer is blind, he relies on his other senses to interpret the world. He is particularly proud of his sense of hearing, and Langley supports this by describing him as bat-like. Homer navigates by hearing the differences in sound patterns as objects are shifted around the room: as he puts it, by the volume of air they displace. “I feel shapes as they push the air away, or I feel the heat from things, you can turn me around till I’m dizzy, but I can still tell where the air is filled in with something solid.”

Homer’s ability to navigate the world around him decreases incrementally. As a boy, still fully sighted, he says of himself: “I was in the fullness of my senses, then.” Then he loses his sight, but with his fine hearing and his stoical acceptance he does not feel it to be too much of an impediment. As the years progress he realises more and more how much his lack of sight bars him from a normal family life, until towards the end of the novel he also loses his hearing and the world of utter isolation closes in with a totality that is unbearable.

Meanwhile, the diminishment of visual powers has been firmly tied to memory. He narrates: “My memories of our long-dead parents are considerably dimmed, as if having fallen further and further back in time has made them smaller, with less visible detail as if time has become space, become distance, and figures from the past, even your father and mother, are too far away to be recognised.” While Homer himself increasingly relies on memories, those very memories are described as having a finite number of uses. Each time a memory is used (remembered), it loses a little of its gloss, its immediacy, until the edges are vague and features are generalised.

As the potency of input sense capacity goes down and the material store of sustaining memories is used up, the house around him increases its clutter – a factor which directly makes his life difficult as he cannot navigate round the objects as he used to do. There is too much junk in the way, he cannot feel the displaced air as he did previously. The junk which obscures useful items like candles is the material equivalent of the “memory junk” that accumulates as a person ages, and itself forms a barrier between them and the outside world: in this case made literal by the absolute barricading of the front door so that all ingress and egress is barred.

Doctorow manages the tempo of the isolation carefully. The real-life brothers’ major utilities were disconnected in 1928, nearly two decades before their deaths, but the account of this in the book comes very near the end. The long-drawn-out downwards trend (masked to Homer partially by his own volition, partially by his lack of sensory input) continues steadily until, as in the decay of an aged body, things suddenly start to fall apart in good earnest. “Langley and I (…) had metamorphosed, we were the ghosts who haunted the house we had once lived in. Not able to see myself or hear my own footsteps, I was coming around to the same idea.”

In the latter stages, the two inseparable brothers are connected only by a small tunnel through the debris, and as Homer can neither hear nor see his brother he says again of him, as for his parents: “I sense the passage of time as a spatial thing, as Langley’s voice has become fainter and fainter, as if he has walked off down a long road, of is falling away in space. (…) It is almost as if the reality is his distance from me and the illusion is his presence.”

Diminishment of attachment to the living world experienced by so many millions of elderly people in our increasingly ageing society is manifested in concrete form by the vehicle of the Collyer brothers’ story. Homer and Langley is a small and mellifluous piece which leaves a haunting, reverberating note of sadness of ageing and regret at the transience of things, and is not easily forgotten.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 190 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (September 7, 2010)
REVIEWER: Vesna McMaster
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September 6, 2010 · Judi Clark · 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Facing History, New York City, y Award Winning Author

2 Responses

  1. dougbrun - September 6, 2010

    Vesna – This is one of the most interesting and insightful reviews of any book I’ve ever read. I read this book in the galleys and missed, until reading your review, ninety percent of what you’ve pointed out. Well done and thank you.
    Doug Bruns

  2. Vesna - September 10, 2010

    What a lovely comment! Thank you, and very glad you enjoyed it. Delighted to have been of service :-) It’s a fascinating book, so it was a great pleasure to write the review, too.

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