Monday, November 21, 2011

Reading group: Homer and Langley by E L Doctorow

This book, Clare's suggestion, is the story of two brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, sons of a bourgeois doctor - one of whom, Homer, is blind; the other, Langley, suffering shell shock - and who, after their parents' death in 1918, hole themselves up in their upper Fifth Avenue brownstone, stuffing it with junk that Langley compulsively amasses, while the greater part of the twentienth century washes up against their doors.

It is based on the real-life case of a pair of brothers of the same names, who were found dead amongst their piles of collected detritus in 1947, Langley having barricaded them in and fallen into one of the many traps he set for intruders. Doctorow takes some fictive liberties with their story, including that of reversing their ages and extending the brothers' lives into the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Unfortunately Clare was unwell and didn't attend, so Mark introduced the book in her place. He said he was an admirer of Doctorow: he really liked his way of taking individuals and placing them within the great events of the twentieth century. However, compared to Ragtime, where Doctorow does this brilliantly, this book, Mark felt, was not so successful. Several people agreed that the characters somehow weren't truly related to the events of the twentieth century, although most of those events touched their life in one way or another. The trouble was, they were only touched by them, since the point was that they were largely shut away from them. Yet at the same time most people felt that the characters themselves didn't really come alive - though Jo was astonished: she thought they were wonderfully rich characters, touchingly portrayed.

I said I agreed that they were touchingly portrayed: blind Homer, who narrates the story with nicely wry economy, has a touching affection for the increasingly mad brother who - in turn touchingly - cares for him, with his all-too sane insights into American society. Mark particularly liked Homer's account of Langley's assessment of the moon landings:
Can you imagine the crassness of it, hitting golf balls on the moon? he said. And that other one, reading the Bible to the universe as he circled around out there? The entire class of blasphemies is in those two acts, he said. The one stupidly irreverent, the other stupidly presumptuous.
However, like the others, I still found that there was something about the brothers that didn't really engage me on the deepest level.

We tried to work out why that was. Ann wondered if the lack of a sense of real connection between the brothers on the one hand and the events of the twentieth century on the other was something to do with the fact that this was a real-life story, that this last fact had somehow hobbled the author. Mark said he thought that the fact that the characters were such eccentrics rather than Everymen contributed to the sense of things not gelling - they just weren't representative so couldn't take the weight of it all (though once again Jo cried out in disagreement). But now some people began to point out that the brothers were more touched by the events in the outside world than we had been saying: what about the fact that they hold tea dances during Prohibition and get raided; what about the fact that their house is used as a refuge by gangsters on the run from the police? What about the fact that hippies come to live with them for a while?  John pointed out that surely the brothers were representative, exaggerated examples of certain twentieth-century and American political traits, compulsive acquisition and isolationism - with which Doug readily agreed. It's all rooted in Langley's shell-shock after the First World War, John said: he's representative of the damage inflicted by wars; and the barricading and hoarding starts after the tea dances, when the police invade their home, ie the state invades the private domain (there's an argument in court as to whether they were holding public meetings or private parties), and they react by creating an exaggerated separation of their private world and the public one.

Still, we felt dissatisfied, but failed to come to any real conclusion as to why. Trevor reminded us about Langley's scheme to create a single-edition generic newspaper that would be useful for all time, based on his Theory of Replacement (everything, including news items, becomes replicated in the end simply in a new form) and for which he collects the stacks of newspapers which will jam the house and eventually topple over and kill him. Trevor thought this was great, and in theory it seems like a central metaphor in the book, but it was interesting that we had failed to mention it, and now that we considered it, we couldn't at that moment see the artistic point of it. Finally, Jenny more or less ended the discussion by saying that she had found the book extremely upsetting, as it had made her think about what can happen to you in old age.

In retrospect it seems to me that the problem is that, while the brothers do come into collision with the outside world, they are essentially unchanged by those collisions: their fate is determined right from the moment when Langley begins the hoarding, and nothing that happens to them changes that trajectory (or lack of it) - which to some extent is determined, as Ann hinted, by the real-life story. They fulfil the static conditions of Langley's Theory of Replacement. Although I have been known in the past to rail against the  tyranny of the conventional 'narrative arc', I find the lack of one detrimental here: while the twentieth-century follows its narrative arc (although Langley would deny that it does), the brothers themselves are simply static points at its centre, or rather edge, with no narrative arc of their own beyond a slow disintegration, and in spite of the wit and the lightness of the prose, there is a hermetic, stifled feel to the novel and ultimately a lack of tension (though I'm sure that Jo would disagree).

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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