- Homer & Langley: A Novel
- Random House, 224 pp.
The Winding Down of the Clock
No, no, E.L. Doctorow! You had me at hello but you lost me around page 130. And I was so looking forward to our reunion.
I first read Doctorow’s most celebrated novel, Ragtime, in college, and chiefly remember being impressed by its gleeful exuberance. History and fiction were thrown across the pages with an inspired lack of regard for rules, with Doctorow playing the part of Jackson Pollock.
History is still there in Homer & Langley, his new novel, but it’s history enclosed behind the shutters of a house on New York’s upper Fifth Avenue. It’s the house in which Homer and Langley Collyer, the two real-life brothers of the title, are born, where they live, and where, presumably, they die.
Homer is the younger brother and the narrator. Having lost his sight in his adolescence, his primary interests have evolved into playing the piano and monitoring his brother’s increasingly bizarre habits.
Langley is the elder. A veteran of World War I, he returns to the United States having endured trench foot, mustard gas and rats that ate the dead. His mind permanently scarred, he applies his energies to his Theory of Replacements:
… a metaphysical sort of idea of the repetition or recurrence of life events, the same things happening over and over, especially given the proscribed limits of human intelligence, Homo sapiens being a specie that, in his words, just didn’t have enough. So that what you knew from the past could be applied to the present.
To illustrate this grand theory, Langley spends his time collecting every daily paper in the city of New York and filing the stories according to general categories: love scandals, mass murders, trials civil, etc. The aim is then to distil them into one all-encompassing dateless newspaper.
Along the way, he also takes to hoarding everything else under the sun – a Model T Ford in the dining room, an early computer the size of a refrigerator – until the law of entropy swallows up the entire house.
It would be misleading, however, to say that the Collyer brothers are hermits. They begin with conventional upper class parents who like to go abroad (On “the Carmania? the Mauretania? the Neuresthania?” In an inspired bit of Doctorow’s nonsense, Homer has to think.)
And they have a full complement of multiethnic servants, including Mrs. Robileaux, a black cook; Siobhan, an Irish maid; and Julia, a Hungarian with lusty appetites.
Plus during the decades that follow they also acquire and lose Mrs. Robileaux’s grandson, a talented jazz cornetist, Mary Riordan, a shy girl who becomes a nun in third world countries, the Hoshiyamas, Japanese housekeepers who are interned during World War II, and a bunch of rag tag hippies. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget a speakeasy gangster straight out of the Warner Bros. lot:
I knew he was the real thing because when he laughed the other men at the table laughed with him… He had a thin whispery voice, tuneless except for a whistle that ran along the top of it as if one of his lungs had sprung a leak.
But it is always upon each other that they rely. Like little Edie and Big Edie Beale in the wilds of Long Island, they are a world unto themselves. Homer fulfils his duties as the blind bard, the classical pianist, the Greek echo, and Langley takes on the task of the cynic, the logician, the spy on the outside.
You could even suggest that without the other, they would have no reason to exist. At one point Langley decides to start dissecting popular tunes, and lights upon “Me and My Shadow”:
Can you imagine a universe like that, with only your own shadow to talk to? That is a song right out of German metaphysics…
Langley, I said. Am I your shadow?
In the darkness I listened. You’re my brother, he said.
Though the Collyer brother’s were living people, Doctorow takes some liberties with their trajectory. In real life, Langley was the one who played the piano, Homer lost his eyesight much later in life and it was in 1947 that they both died (in their sixties). As in Ragtime, history can be bent to fit a fictional frame when necessary.
I think I can see where Doctorow is going with his changes. If Homer can’t go out into the world, then Langley will strive to bring the world to him. News, inventions, people, social movements – they’re all crammed into the hallways and sent toppling over the chairs.
And as the years wear on and their lives become more and more eccentric, we see Doctorow equating it with the general thrust of the decades. Their habits are, as Homer notes, no madder than a bombing of Baptist church that kills four black girls, or the shooting down of college students.
Sing in me, Muse quotes Homer (the original one). “Jacqueline, my muse, I speak to you directly for a moment,” quoth our modern man. It is no accident that Homer addresses his story to a French reporter whom he briefly met. For, in a way, his account is his own universal newspaper, an elegy to the disintegration of 20th century America, the winding down of the clock.
Why, then, with all these interesting ideas, did Doctorow lose me? I don’t know. He still has the knack for image and word, still that interest in the human circus. Perhaps it is because once he starts Homer and Langley on their path, there is nowhere to go but into the darkness.
As a passive participant, Homer is limited in his scope. He cannot act, he can only react to the information Langley and his senses feed him, and eventually he becomes sick of that: “I am wearing away. I feel I have not the leisure to tax myself for the right date, the right word,” says Homer at one point, and I sense the author’s tired hand at work.
In one hundred years, the United States built skyscrapers that scratched the sun, fought in wars that crossed continents and flew to the moon. Only in Doctorow’s temple on 5th Avenue, in the world that Homer creates for us inside his mind, there are no majestic spoils of war to remind us of our epic feats, just a big pile of moldering stuff.