Thursday, 5 August 2021

Homer and Langley by EL Doctorow

Homer and Langley by EL Doctorow book review by Rob McInroy
I remember working with a group of learners once, and remarking how each of them, to differing degrees, had a tendency to distance the reader from their writing. What they were doing was telling the story at one remove – not literally in the pluperfect tense – but in the sense of much of the principal action having been completed at an earlier time than that of the main narrative. The effect of such writing is that much of the story is told almost in summary form and the reader feels excluded from it. It is a surprisingly common fault in beginner writers. 

I was reminded of this when reading E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley, because Doctorow uses precisely the same technique. He is doing it intentionally, of course, and his distancing is quite deliberate. Because distance, remoteness from the world, an abstract sense of unbelonging, is precisely what Homer and Langley is about. So, for example, early in the novel the protagonists’s maid receives a war letter informing her that her son is missing in action, presumed dead. Instead of relating this through dialogue, allowing the reader entry into the scene at that profound moment, it is told in narrative summary and loses, as a result, some of its emotional intensity. But where, with my learners, that would be a fault, with Doctorow he is turning it into a major strength of the writing, because it is underlining the character of the novel’s narrator, Homer Collyer. We can’t enter an empathetic scene when the tragedy unfolds, because Homer himself is unable to comprehend such concepts. He lives at a remove from the world and cannot truly be a part of it. 

This sense of disconnection from the daily travails of ordinary living runs through the novel to a remarkable degree. It is based – albeit very loosely – on the true story of the Collyer brothers in Manhattan in the early to mid part of the last century. Recluses and eccentrics, they lived in isolated squalor in their apartment in Fifth Avenue (moved in the novel closer to Central Park), gradually accumulating a houseful of junk and detritus. Literally so: every room was piled to the ceiling with newspapers, books, boxes, human organs pickled in formaldehyde, a Model T Ford chassis, chandeliers, banjos, bicycles, everything, an extraordinary panoply of junk. Over the years it became a “labyrinth of hazardous pathways, full of obstructions and many dead ends”. After their deaths in 1947, the authorities removed 100 tonnes of junk from the house and, because it was in such a state of ill-repair, the building itself was demolished. 

In the novel and in real life, the brothers set themselves against society. Homer is blind and Langley is badly scarred by his experiences in the First World War, both mentally and physically, with a terrible cough brought on by exposure to mustard gas. They withdraw from a society which they increasingly regarded with mistrust. They refuse to pay taxes, or their mortgage, or phone or electric or gas bills. Gradually, these amenities are cut off but the brothers remain undeterred. The Model T provides a generator for electricity. Langley scavenges across the city for food and water. The reality was a desperately sad story, but Doctorow has taken this rough material and made something quite beautiful with it. He has turned these brothers – strange, probably insane – into men of honour and reason. 

And in so doing he has, of course, cast a light on our own society and our blighted modern world. Because Doctorow extends the metaphorical reach of the brothers’ story by taking liberties with their history, allowing them, for example, to live on into the 1960s, when they are adopted by the young hippies as heroes of the counter-culture and into the 1970s, when they are finally abandoned to their fate. Thus, he allows them to be detached, to become almost chimerical chroniclers of the twentieth century from its elysian pre-First World War days to the beginnings of the modern technological and computer age. 

The fact that our narrator is blind, of course, presents us with yet another level of dissociation from the materiality of this modern world in which they are reluctant participants. And, again, this is a brave and highly impressive piece of writing by Doctorow: how does one tell a tale through the eyes of a man who cannot see? Doctorow sets himself this challenge and conquers it superbly. Homer Collyer cannot see the world, nor can he understand those who inhabit it, and yet, through this lonely, despairing man we are given a vision of the world which is starkly perceptive. Near the end, when he is deaf as well as blind, he writes, “I am grateful to have this [braille] typewriter, and the reams of paper beside my chair, as the world has shuttered slowly closed, intending to leave me only my consciousness.” In this way, the reader is simultaneously drawn inwards with Homer, to that dark and sad state, and outwards, to a world we take for granted but which he has reflected back at us with all its imperfections and peril. It is precisely because we are forced to view it through the lost eyes of an outsider that we can see beyond the veneer of the world into the austerity we all too often gloss over: Homer Collyer allows us, for once, to see ourselves as others see us, and it is an uncomfortable experience. 

Only occasionally does reality intrude on the brothers’ cloistered life. In the early days they run weekly dances until they are shut down by the authorities; twice, they come into contact with an underworld gangster – the first time beguilingly, the second more troublingly; during the Second World War they provide refuge to a Japanese couple until the couple are arrested and interned; latterly, they are adopted by hippies and their house becomes an alternative hang-out. But mostly the shutters are drawn and the world is repelled. Inside, Homer and Langley live their own, lonely yet determined existences. Langley is on a mission to classify every event and happening in the world and produce, from his labours, a comprehensive “eternally current dateless newspaper” of humanity which covers anything that could ever happen. Events like Watergate prove troublesome in terms of classification as generic types, but Langley remains devoted to his task. Homer, meanwhile, works on his music, playing his beloved pianos, and writes his life story. In keeping with the passive reporting style I mentioned in the opening of this review, nothing that happens to them feels direct, or organised, or redolent of ordinary living. It is typical of the oblique nature of the novel, for example, that their first encounter with computerisation is not a computer per se, but a computerised digital organ. Nothing in this novel is straightforward or commonplace. Everything is at a remove from our understanding of life. 

Robert Epstein, writing in The Independent, concludes an otherwise highly favourable review with the somewhat ambivalent observation that Homer and Langley succeeds if one can accept that “a historical novel need not do more than paint a picture of its protagonists”. I disagree that this is all Homer and Langley achieves. Despite the remarkable sense of inwardness, there is still, here, an analysis of the First World War, the Great Depression, the gangster era, the Second World War, Vietnam, hippies, Watergate, the assassinations of JFK, MLK and Bobby Kennedy, New York’s blackouts and so on. The twentieth century history of America is here in full, only it is presented in negative, in the human spaces beneath the history. It is an extraordinary, but hugely effective way, to analyse our human story. History is written by the victors, they say. Well perhaps, here, we have history written by the losers.

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