“The idea of a house built so that people could become lost in it,” Borges writes in his Book of Imaginary Beings, “is perhaps more unusual than that of a man with a bull’s head.” The four-story Victorian mansion on upper Fifth Avenue where the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, spend their well-upholstered childhood—as recaptured in E.L. Doctorow’s wondrous new novel—is already a labyrinthine house to get lost in, with its “tufted Empire side chairs” and smothering curtains, its “standing lamps with tasseled shades and matching chinois amphora that you could almost step into.”
The stolid Collyer parents, too, seem overfurnished: the “prominent women’s doctor” sporting “a brush mustache and pince-nez”; his wife’s “ample figure girdled in the style of that day, with her abundant hair swept up and pinned cornucopically.” From their annual foraging trips abroad—aboard the Mauretania, Homer remembers, or was it perhaps the Neuresthania?—more treasures arrive to take up residence in the stuffy house: “a marble water fountain, or busts of Romans with no noses or missing ears, or antique armoires with their fecal smell.”
With its gloomy expanse of haunted houses, the dead mingling promiscuously with the living and the inanimate with the animate, American literature can sometimes seem best suited for Halloween. After the Spanish flu, “like some great predatory bird,” has plucked the Collyer parents from their “aspiring warehouse,” the Collyer mansion does bear a family resemblance to Usher’s doomed abode and the House of the Seven Gables. “Cluttered it might have seemed to outsiders,” Homer observes, “but it seemed normal and right to us and it was our legacy, Langley’s and mine, this sense of living with things assertively inanimate, and having to walk around them.”
Ostensibly a historical novel, bearing the customary and somewhat ambiguous warning that “apart from the actual people, events, and locales that figure in the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously,” Homer & Langley is energetically untethered from the documentary record, which happens to be quite extensive. There was much curiosity about the rich and reclusive Collyer brothers when they were alive, and even more after they died, in 1947, Langley apparently a victim of one of his own booby traps, and Homer, blind and deprived of his brother’s care, of starvation. Their bodies, not easy to locate amid the accumulated tons of detritus—tunnels of newspapers baled like hay, thousands of books, a Model T Ford, human organs pickled in jars of formaldehyde, a dozen pianos, a clavichord, dressmaking dummies, sewing machines, baby carriages—were removed from the house and buried, alongside their parents, at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Novels and plays (one titled Clutter: The True Story of the Collyer Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out) have been written about the brothers, screenplays floated, a Japanese manga drawn, children warned—as Doctorow claims that he was warned as a child—to clean up their rooms or risk ending up as…the Collyer brothers.
Given such a rank and rampant Jamesian donnée, Doctorow might well have been tempted to explore the psychological impulse for hoarding, or to draw the somewhat arbitrary cultural distinctions between, say, the accumulation of treasures at the Metropolitan Museum and the more haphazardly curated array of artifacts on display up Fifth Avenue in the Collyer residence. One might have thought that the subject would have lent itself to baroque elaborations of bric-a-brac, great Whitmanian catalogs of the strata laid down through the ages. The result might have matched, in its sheer epic materiality, Doctorow’s previous novelistic venture The March (2005), his pageant-like re-imagining of Sherman’s omnivorous onslaught through the beleaguered South.
But Doctorow has pursued a less predictable course. He has made small adjustments, reversing the birth order of the brothers, reducing the gap between their ages, getting rid of an unnecessary sister, and extending their lives into the 1970s. Most importantly, he has shifted the tale from one of accumulating clutter to one of accelerating reclusiveness, resulting in a fable of radical inwardness. Their “labyrinth of baled newspapers” is the walled compound behind which the brothers, like Bartleby or Emily Dickinson, select their own society, then bar the door, precipitating what Homer calls, rather grandly, “our abandonment of the outer world.”
Doctorow’s inspired choice of a narrator shifts the story out of the visible world altogether. “I’m Homer, the blind brother,” the novel begins, followed by a vivid account of how he lost his sight, like a “slow fade-out” in the movies, during his late teens. He was watching skaters on the lake in Central Park, he remembers, in one of his characteristically mazelike sentences:
The houses over to Central Park West went first, they got darker as if dissolving into the dark sky until I couldn’t make them out, and then the trees began to lose their shape, and then finally, this was toward the end of the season, maybe it was late February of that very cold winter, and all I could see were these phantom shapes of the ice skaters floating past me on a field of ice, and then the white ice, that last light, went gray and then altogether black, and then all my sight was gone though I could hear clearly the scoot scut of the blades on the ice.
Homer is a man of touch, a pianist who is typing the story we are reading on a Braille typewriter, one of Langley’s collection of typewriters of various vintages. He moves through the house by memory and feel, like Kafka’s mole-like hero in “The Burrow,” nosing through his labyrinthine retreat and reporting Langley’s gnomic and Kafkaesque utterances with the respectful assiduity of a Boswell:
We had a joke, Langley and I: Someone dying asks if there is life after death. Yes, comes the answer, only not yours.
Gassed in the trenches of World War I, Langley returns, scarred and asthmatic, “a different man.” As his “post-war bitterness” morphs into an increasingly “iconoclastic life of the mind,” he is given to offbeat inventions, grand theories, and escalating paranoia. Newspapers are his passion, and the raw material for his Theory of Replacements:
I have a theory, he said to me. Everything in life gets replaced. We are our parents’ replacements just as they were replacements of the previous generation. All these herds of bison they are slaughtering out west, you would think that was the end of them, but they won’t all be slaughtered and the herds will fill back in with replacements that will be indistinguishable from the ones slaughtered.
Langley’s quixotic project is “the collection of the daily papers with the ultimate aim of creating one day’s edition of a newspaper.” He aspires “to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer’s eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need”—news that stays news.
Langley’s Platonic search for the typical beneath its various manifestations—like Kafka’s burrower he believes that “it is always a fault to have only one piece of anything”—leads to his increasingly flamboyant “collection of artifacts from our American life”: rifles dangling from the fireplace “like Christmas stockings,” along with gas masks, canteens, and ammunition belts. “It was as if the times blew through our house like a wind, and these were the things deposited here by the winds of war.”
But the brothers are also collectors of people, many of whom seem themselves to have sprung from newspaper headlines. There is the gangster Vincent who, true to his name, arrives in the house missing an ear, having been carried from the scene of a shooting by two goons described as “granitelike—hard, verging on inanimate.” There is the black jazz musician from New Orleans who is killed in World War II and the Irish nun who is killed in El Salvador. There is the Japanese couple who keep house for the brothers, bringing momentary order and cleanliness to the place before the FBI arrives after Pearl Harbor to cart them away. And best of all, there is the herd of hippies who move in with the brothers after an antiwar rally.
Given the cluttered and clotted setting, all this is told in a surprisingly lyrical and fluent narrative. Homer like his namesake has a touch of the poet, quoting from Hopkins and Auden and Pessoa—“I’m me, and what the hell can I do about it!… I, the solemn investigator of useless things.” He brings a Nabokovian wit and relish to romance. Lifelong bachelors, the brothers have their share of intense if short-lived love affairs: Langley with “some kind of Socialist-anarchist-anarcho- syndicalist-Communist”; Homer, more international in his tastes, first with the Hungarian maid (“Like you this, sir, does the sir like his Julia?”), then with the Irish girl who turns the pages of his Braille music, and finally with a French theorist named Jacqueline Roux, his unlikely muse, who encourages him to write down his story. “Why not say what happened?” Homer reflects, quoting Robert Lowell.
If there is a monster in the Collyers’ labyrinth, it is bull-headed American power, American authority, “unexceptional after all,” in Langley’s jaundiced view. Corrupt cops try to shake down the brothers. FBI agents, “uncommunicative and impervious to reason,” who “ignore the Constitution whenever they so choose,” arrest Japanese-American citizens. A regime that ignores the plight of European Jews drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Vietnam, on the heels of Korea and the two world wars, is just “another damnable war.” Contras in El Salvador, illegally supported by a corrupt American regime, kill innocent nuns. “Presidential malfeasance” is one of the tentative entries in Langley’s newspaper file. “Until another president subverted the Constitution he was sworn to uphold, it couldn’t be considered as seminal. But I’m waiting, he said.”
Doctorow’s literary and political allegiances, populist in flavor with a strong anarchist undercurrent, have always been with underdogs, outcasts, men and women living on the margins. As in earlier novels like Ragtime (1975) and Billy Bathgate (1989), in Homer & Langley he assembles a bifurcated cast of uniformed bullies on one side and vital eccentrics—gangsters, warm-hearted prostitutes, jazz musicians, inventors, escape artists—on the other. One can see why he extended the Collyers’ lives beyond the Sixties, so that they can temporarily adopt, in “the only pad on upper Fifth Avenue,” a group of hippies whose exile from American life is as radical as their own:
Living as they did, these kids were more radical critics of society than the antiwar or civil rights people getting so much attention in the newspapers. They had no intention of trying to make things better. They had simply rejected the entire culture. If they attended that antiwar rally in the park it was because there was music there and it was pleasant to sit on the grass and drink wine and smoke their joints. They were itinerants who had chosen poverty and were too young and heedless to think what the society would eventually do to them by way of vengeance. Langley and I could have told them. They had seen our house as a Temple of Dissidence, and made it their own, so even if we had said, Look at us, look at what you might become, it wouldn’t have meant anything.
The flower children have names like Dawn and Sundown, and one draws bawdy comic strips of the brothers in the vein of R. Crumb. Homer asks what they look like in the drawings:
We are old gray-haired lechers with little heads with bulging eyes and buck teeth and our legs get wider as they reach the ankles and our feet are fitted with enormous shoes, Langley said. We like to dance with our index fingers pointing to the sky. We pinch ladies’ bottoms and hold them upside down so that their dresses fall over their heads.
In the Collyers’ bizarre residence, these hippies seem to have found their perfect home, a rhyme for their own preoccupations, as surreally psychedelic as an old poster from the Fillmore West:
They stood in awe in the dim light of the dining room looking upon our Model T on its sunken tires and with the cobwebs of years draped over it like an intricate netting of cat’s cradles, and one of the girls, Lissy—the one I was to bond with—Lissy said, Oh wow! And I considered the possibility, after drinking too much of their bad wine, that my brother and I were, willy-nilly and ipso facto, prophets of a new age.
When the lights go out in the great blackout of 1977, Homer leads this band of merry pranksters safely out, the blind leading the blind, in a great ecstatic conga line through the darkened house, which has become “a labyrinth of hazardous pathways, full of obstructions and many dead ends.”
Always mindful of his American literary antecedents, Doctorow has written an oblique fable that resembles those case studies of myopic monomania that Hawthorne and Melville recorded: the minister who dons a black veil and darkens his world along with that of his parishioners; Bartleby who relinquishes his absurd job of copyist as he loses his eyesight. But Homer & Langley is less a tale of monomania than a folie à deux, fraternal doppelgangers, a man and his shadow, who ride a bicycle built for two through the side streets of Manhattan, taking “pleasure from the horns that blew behind us.” They are in their way a community of resisters, brothers in arms in both senses of the phrase; tied back to back in kitchen chairs following a home invasion, they find a way, working together, to escape.
Hawthorne called “The Minister’s Black Veil” a parable, and Homer & Langley carries a kindred allusiveness. If it’s not a case study of lives buried under clutter, what is it? Doctorow recently published an updated version of Hawthorne’s brilliant story “Wakefield,” the germ of which—a man walks out on his wife and lives on an adjacent street for twenty years, spying on her all the while—Hawthorne claimed to have found “in some old magazine or newspaper.” Hawthorne playfully casts about for a moral to his story and comes up with this:
Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.
Borges, an ardent admirer of the story, noted that it has been interpreted as “an allegory for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s curious life of reclusion.”
The Collyers, in Doctorow’s telling, do “step aside” and lose their place in what hippies called “the System.” But it may take us more deeply into the heart of Homer & Langley to consider those bales of newspapers. It was in an old newspaper that Hawthorne found Wakefield. And it seems to me that in Langley’s Theory of Replacements and his dream of an eternal newspaper, Doctorow has found a parable for his own practice as a historical novelist. What does such a novelist do if not pore over old headlines and faits divers for the breath of still lingering life, for the real “story” concealed beneath its merely journalistic and ephemeral recounting? Where did Doctorow find the suggestive traces of the Collyer brothers if not in the pages and black-and-white photographs of The New York Times ?
The novel curls reflexively back on itself when the Collyers come to realize that they themselves have become newspaper stories. “The first reporter who rang our bell,” Homer notes,
made me realize it was a class of disgustingly fallible human beings who turned themselves into infallible print every day, compounding the historical record that stood in our house like bales of cotton. If you talk to these people you are at their mercy, and if you don’t talk to them you are at their mercy. Langley said to me, We are a story, Homer. Listen to this—and he read this supposedly factual account about these weird eccentrics who had shuttered their windows and bolted their doors and run up thousands of dollars in unpaid bills though they were worth millions.
Homer asks Langley, “How would you run this in Collyer’s forever up-to-date newspaper?” Langley replies: “We are sui generis, Homer…. Unless someone comes along as remarkably prophetic as we are, I’m obliged to ignore our existence.” What could be more terrible, Homer wonders, “than being turned into a mythic joke? How could we cope, once dead and gone, with no one available to reclaim our history?”
In his darkly visionary and surprisingly funny Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow has taken up the Collyer brothers’ challenge. He has decisively recast the meaning of their reclusiveness. The novel is also both a retrospective trip through his own career (“I have been at it for some time now,” Homer reflects of his own writing, in what must be close to Doctorow’s own voice) and through the history of the violent century just past that he has documented and redreamed so vividly in a dozen novels. In his telling, the Collyer brothers are allowed to escape their final labyrinth: the gossip mill of “mythic jokes,” old newspapers, and amateur psychology. Doctorow has movingly made himself available to reclaim their history.
December 17, 2009