Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tragic Clutter: Reflections on E.L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley

Not long after I graduated from George Mason, E.L. Doctorow gave a reading on campus. Naturally, I went. 

I have to confess I’ve never quite known what to make of Doctorow.  His worth seems predetermined, as if he has a god status that allows him to float above the realm of MFAs and AWP and New Yorkers desperate to be Novelists. Perhaps this is because I first became aware of his name while memorizing facts for my high school’s academic quiz team: If they asked who wrote Ragtime, my finger was on that buzzer!  Not that I had read the book, but I had memorized his name along with a long list of old influential dead guys—Giotto, Charles Pinckney (“No! No, not a sixpence!”), Giteau—and so I suppose Doctorow, too, seemed like something from the annals of history.

So it was a bit of a surprise to find, ten years later, a vital, mild-mannered, white-haired man who spoke easily to the half-empty auditorium I did my part to fill. Of course, by then I well knew he was a living novelist, and I had read The Book of Daniel for one of my graduate writing classes (Structure of the Novel—it was a good fit for the subject). From that book and from his reputation, I knew that Doctorow was an American novelist—one who does not simply happen to be an American citizen and a novelist, but one who intentionally engages American history and thereby explores what it is to be American.

He was reading that day from his most recent novel, Homer and Langley, and the premise—along with some of his comments—was enough to stick with me until two weeks ago when I finally got around to reading it.  The book is told from Homer Collyer’s point of view—Homer of the infamous Collyer brothers, eccentric pack rats who died in their New York mansion, Langley crushed under a pile of clutter, Homer from malnutrition and dehydration because he was blind and dependent on Langley for care.  It’s a tragedy, and even more of one when you read Doctorow’s version of it—Langley broken by his service in World War I; the lyrical, quasi-lecherous Homer yearning to be loved and experiencing loss of sight in his youth and of hearing in his age.

But Doctorow does a good job of keeping things lively with recounted episodes of Homer’s taking up with the housemaid and offending the family’s most faithful servant, Langley assembling a Ford in the dining room, and Homer befriending a gangster who later ends up seeking refuge with the Collyers.  The first-person is used to good effect, lulling us into understanding how these eccentric episodes come about, though always with hint enough at Langley’s compulsive collecting and theory concocting to remind us that the Collyer brothers’ lives are indeed abnormal.

At his reading, Doctorow posited that people are intrigued by the Collyer brothers because we all have a tendency to let things—objects, clutter—accumulate.  We are haunted by the Collyers because we can see that it wouldn’t take much for our material possessions to overwhelm us.  I think he’s right, but even if you don’t agree, there is a lesson here for the novelist: the book is successful because we end up identifying with Homer.  A person who, if we had met him, would have made us shrink away because of his otherness, here, in fiction, draws us in.  And it isn’t just the commonality of our battle against material clutter—it’s the commonality of being human, limited by our own selves but desiring to be greater somehow, whether through love—as is the case for Homer—or, as for Langley, through wild, creative endeavors.