Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 25, 2010

Homer and Langley, by E.L.Doctorow

I borrowed Homer and Langley by E.L.Doctorow when I saw it at the library because my good friend Lurline had recommended the author.   The March  has been on my TBR for ages, and is also on my list of books to read for the The 2010 Book Awards Reading Challenge because it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2005.

So my expectations of this author were high, and although I wasn’t excited in the way that I was by the discovery of intellectually stimulating writers like David Foster and Gerald Murnane, I wasn’t disappointed.  Homer and Langley is rather a simple story, told as a straightforward first person narrative with no fancy postmodern tricks, but it’s quite compelling.   It’s the melancholy tale of brothers Homer and Langley who live as recluses in a New York apartment, their lives gradually overwhelmed by Langley’s obsessive hoarding.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Those of us who watch Collectors on ABC TV are familiar with the sight of collections getting a bit out of hand, but Langley’s habits are something else again.  Damaged by his experiences in the Great War, he hoards every newspaper he comes across, and keeps a T-Model Ford in the dining-room.  He crosses the line when his obsession gets to the stage where Homer, who is blind, cannot negotiate his way around the house any more.  He used to enjoy sitting in the yard in the sunshine, but it becomes impossible as it fills up with ‘things accumulated over the years that we had bought or salvaged in expectation of their possible usefulness some time in the future.’ (p95) Inside, every room has become an ‘obstacle course’ (p96), and this would be cruel of Langley if he were capable of empathy, but he’s not.  On the rare occasions when he’s tackled about the impracticability of something, (as when the housekeeper demurs about the newspapers) he dreams up some vaguely philosophical explanation such as his ‘theory of replacements’ to justify it.  Indeed as time goes by, it is Langley who is blind to the catastrophic state of the house.  (These days he would probably be diagnosed as having Asberger’s Syndrome).

By contrast, it is Homer who sees.  It is he who guides the impromptu household out of the chaos when the city’s lights fail, but it is also he who sees how others see him.  Langley gets the idea that they could earn some money by competing in game shows, but decides in the end that it wouldn’t be worth the indignity of it. It’s Homer who recognises that, with Langley’s matted hair hanging down his back and his own Lisztian fall, together with their faded army greens  and boots, they would not have been ‘sartorially typecast’ anyway. (p108)  ‘

Homer’s bland way of recording their bizarre way of life only occasionally reveals the impact on him: an intelligent man with a love of classical music and a talent for the piano, he admits to being bored and actually enjoys the invasion of the house by a mob of gangsters.  His mild acceptance of his brother’s obsession – ‘one [thing] would not do where an assortment might be had’ (p118) eventually becomes more like absolute submission to Langley and it is futile to protest.  He considers the possibility that Langley is insane, (p132) but does nothing about it.

Neither does anyone else.  In the early years there is a veritable parade of characters through this monstrous house, from FBI agents to hippies using it as a place to squat between demos but they all seem to accept it as an eccentricity.  Later, neighbours alert the fire brigade when there is a fire in the kitchen and that brings the health department,  but Langley barricades the doors and windows and resists all attempts to intervene.   When the utilities are cut off he simply goes shopping for a collection of lamps and the brothers forage for water in Central Park.

Most tragic of all is that Homer loses his hearing too so that he, whose sole solace is music, is worse off than Beethoven, who could at least see.  (p174)  He dreams of love; he writes his story using a braille typewriter, and his miserable world closes in around him…

After I finished reading it, I went looking for other reviews as I usually do, and discovered that Doctorow’s novel is based on an appalling true story. Born in the 1880s, the  Collyer Brothers lived for decades in filth and chaos and died a gruesome death in the 1940s after a lifetime of eccentric hoarding.

It reminded me, in an offbeat way, of Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala.  White’s novel is modernist, but the brothers Waldo and Arthur Brown are similarly trapped together by their mutual dependence and their inability to fit into the society in which they find themselves.  They too share everything except their view of things.

Reviews worth reading are at The New Yorker, the New York Times,  and (less enthusiastic) the California Literary Review. This one at Silverrod has spoilers.

Author: E.L. Doctorow
Title: Homer and Langley
Publisher: Random House 2009
ISBN: 9781400064946
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. Your review is really interesting to me, because it is so opposite to my own. I had a completely different take on this novel – I interpreted it as a modern day Illiad (complete with a blind Homer narrating) and didn’t view it as a straightforward narrative at all. Re: Langley as villain – I wonder why you felt that way, when there was such an obvious (at least I thought) attachment between the brothers in the book?

    Doctorow did some clever mixing and matching with the historical facts and it may relieve you to know that the real Homer & Langley did not exhibit hoarding behavior until later in life. For the first 1/2 of their lives they were fairly normal – Langley was a professional pianist and Homer a lawyer. Neither went to war, the parents didn’t die of Spanish influenza and Homer became blind in his late 40’s-50’s (not early childhood).

  2. Hello BSB, thanks for this comment:)
    Expecting an author of doctorow’s stature to be writing in a sophisticated way, I did wonder about blind Homer being an allusion, but I couldn’t see either an Odyssean journey or the themes in the Iliad (intemperate conflict, rage, reconciliation). Can you clarify which aspects of The Iliad you mean?
    Langley as villain? I didn’t mean to imply that, only that as the years go by his eccentricity has truly awful consequences for Homer.

  3. Lisa –
    I’m embarrassed to say that I typed in the Illiad, meaning the Odyssey.

    The reason I think it’s easy to dismiss the Odyssean parallel (and I almost did it myself) is because Doctorow has created version of the Odyssey that could only have taken place in modern times. Odysseus encountered his adventures on his journey home, but the Collyers’ have history funnel through their door… almost the entire 20th century in fact. It’s the Odyssey in reverse. Small vignettes of greed, friendship, loyalty, hospitality, pride, etc. all play out in the novel, very much like the individual encounters and trials experienced by Odysseus. There is also the constant play on perception versus the reality of the situations the brothers find themselves in. Homer, by the very fact of his blindness, is an unreliable narrator… but Doctorow does a brilliant job of planting reminders that the house is filling up around him.

    What I love so much about Doctorow (I’ve read two of his books now and am looking forward to starting The March) is how subtle and low-key his storytelling style is. But he packs a lot in there that the reader has the choice to either take or leave.

    Here’s a link to my review. I tried not to get too in depth (you could probably write a thesis on Doctorow’s individual works). http://booksexy.wordpress.com/2009/09/18/a-20th-century-odyssey-homer-langley-by-e-l-doctorow/ I put the link at the end of this comment in case you want to edit it out before approving. I don’t want to appear self-serving. :)

  4. I’m delighted to share that link BSB, and your explanation of the Homeric parallels makes perfect sense now. Thanks!
    PS I’ve subscribed to your blog.

  5. […] last time I read a book in a similar vein was Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow and that ended very badly indeed because they didn’t have a […]

  6. […] Sylvie is dramatically eccentric: she hoards empty tin cans and newspapers like Homer and Langley do.  But we can also read this as refusal, the kind of blind refusal to see the trash that needs […]


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