Saturday, July 5, 2014

Homer and Langley

In E.L Doctorow's beautiful and touching novel, the disordered lives of the notorious Collyer brothers are reimagined as a story of resistance against the main course of establishment U.S. history over the twentieth century. Just as their increasingly pathological hoarding gradually fills up their Manhattan brownstone with hazardous piles of junk from the outside world, so their lives and home accumulate a sequence of archetypal American outsiders, from an African-American cook and her jazz-playing son, to a Japanese-American couple who are dragged away during World War II, to a veritable commune's worth of hippies, to a mobster on the run, to an orphaned piano student who lives with the brothers for a time and eventually leaves for school, later to become a nun, and who still later is murdered (we are led to believe) for her work with the poor in an unnamed Central American country.

The metaphor of hoarding engages some of Doctorow's modernist impulses as a writer—especially his frequent employment of lists—but with intentional irony, he has with this novel crafted one of his most orderly and structured works. As the world literally and figuratively closes in on him, as he loses his hearing and his contact with anyone but his own consciousness and his brother Langley, our narrator, the blind brother Homer, is left with that most Doctorovian of pursuits: he writes. Homer, channeling Doctorow, insists that while the brothers may be eccentric, they are perfectly sane—quite possibly saner than the rest of humanity. But for Homer, sanity is ultimately a curse. "If I could go crazy, if I could will that on myself, I might not know how badly off I am, how awful is this awareness that is irremediably aware of itself. With only the touch of my brother's hand to know that I am not alone."

And that fraternal bond is the other great theme of this unlikely love story.

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