Homer and Langley – E L Doctorow

6 April 2011
To the tea-dances, about one-third of the way through
The early section covers the years leading up to the USA entering the First World War, the same period as Ragtime, the first novel I ever read by Doctorow. This one doesn’t stop there, and we’ve already reached the Depression.

Homer is, appropriately enough, the blind one. Early on he describes the winter when, in his late teens, he lost his sight. It was like a fade-out in the movies, but over several months rather than a few seconds. Homer describes looking on, as it were, with a kind of curiosity: at whatever pitch of emotional intensity he lives his life, the way he chooses to describe things is with a kind of objective coolness. Homer tells it how it is, or was, but he isn’t going to be making any kind of fuss about it.

That’s ok, but we shouldn’t be taken in: there’s a lot going on behind his clouded eyes. As he describes the years of childhood he spends more time on his prosperous parents’ absences on long European vacations than on daily life when they were around. He says that unlike most old people – we don’t know how old he is as he narrates this, but Doctorow was 78, so maybe that’s a clue – he doesn’t remember his life with them better than recent events. He says he can’t remember a single thing either of them ever said. This early independence, or whatever, fits with the self-contained quality of the way he writes. I find it highly engaging.

The onset of his narrator’s blindness gives Doctorow the chance to focus on the senses that most novels don’t reach. Homer is quickly able to develop the ability to ‘feel’ where objects are in a room through – what? – the different pressure of the air near them? The almost imperceptible change of the quality of sound? And the way he learns new pieces for the piano is an exercise in combining hearing and touch. Langley has taken to buying pianola machines – I’ll get back to his collecting habits, which go far beyond the mere acquisition of things – and Homer learns pieces by hearing them and playing along until his fingers fit the movements of the mechanical keys precisely.

But he could see perfectly well until that winter when he observed by watching ice-skaters in Central Park the way that his own sense of them moved away from the visual and towards the aural, the scut and shush (or something) of the skaters’ movements on ice. But now he remembers the visual world more vividly than most narrators see it in real time. Last year’s must-read was a novel about a different New York borough, Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, and I hated the way it never focuses on the look of things. As I wrote at the time, Toibin ‘has his characters wandering around a Brooklyn in which absolutely nothing is mentioned of topography, architecture, advertising, the colours of things. Toibin doesn’t do visual.’ What I don’t mention is the way that Toibin doesn’t often do the other senses either, except for occasional descriptions of physical discomfort.

Homer’s New York could not be more different from this. A sight like the departure of the Lusitania or whatever other grand-sounding liner – ‘the Neurasthenia?’ – his parents were sailing on is described with such vividness it’s almost possible to see the huge smoke-stacks and feel that basso profundo note that shakes the sensitive young Homer. The warmth of the sun and its early autumn light through the leaves of plants in one of New York’s long-disappeared market gardens combine seamlessly with this memory of one of the few times when he was lovingly engaged in a real activity with his mother. In other words, this is sensually rich writing, and I’m loving it.

But what about the plot? Does it even have a plot? A lot of things happen, more or less chronologically – Homer apologises for the way that memory doesn’t always place things in the right order – and in 60 or so pages he’s already got through three decades. What we get are episodes, or clusters of episodes around whatever he’s thinking about. Doctorow does this so subtly there seems to be no agenda at all, but themes emerge. And so does character in this story of brothers born into a prosperous world who somehow lose their way. Usually I come to novels with no knowledge of what they might be about, but this one – skip to the next paragraph now if you don’t want me to spoil it – is based on a true story of the reclusive Collyer brothers living into old age in their mansion full of their lifetime’s clutter. I don’t know which details are definitely factual, and I’m not bothered. I have no problem if every line of the novel is speculation beyond the simple facts I know about. It works for me.

One theme is their relationship with women. This thread starts very early on, and we get the first example of Homer’s habit of pre-empting the outcome when he tells us that this will end up being a sad story. A summer-camp romance – what could be more innocent than love that doesn’t even know what it is? he asks – ends when they stumble into a showing of ‘what would later become known as a blue movie.’ As he always does, Homer gives us the details – and describes exactly how ‘rapt’ he is. The girl has left, and never speaks to him again because, he assumes, of his guilt by gender association with the man doing what he does to the woman in the film. And he has learnt the adolescent falsehood that most men never grow out of: that relationships are all about what men do to women.

Up to the point I’m at now, there are no more fulfilling relationships with women for either of the brothers – and Homer, in that way of his, has already let us know that things do not improve. There is a ‘Jacqueline’ that he addresses in the present, someone he refers to as his muse and the person who is encouraging him to write this memoir, but the ones we’ve actually met are venal – Julia, the Hungarian maid on the make who shares his bed in order to gain power over the other servants – or on a pedestal of virginal purity. This latter is Mary Elizabeth, the good Catholic girl who helps Homer to work as a pianist in the silent movies, and he muses on the aptness of her name. He can’t bear to think of what later was to become of her, and we wince in anticipation. (We still don’t know.)

Langley returns from the war, his lungs ruined by mustard gas, to be told by Homer that both their parents have died from Spanish Flu. All his early confidence has turned into cynicism. His experiences in the trenches come down to a tiny handful of stories – the use of the bayonet, the rats in the officer’s coffin, the mindless night watch punishment for perceived insubordination – and he refuses to attend the victory parade. In his eyes, nobody has won but now, technically, his discharge is counted as desertion. Homer tells us that this is not the last time that they will be doing battle with the law. (In the tea-dance section I’ve reached, Langley has just told the cop who wants a slice of the profits exactly what he thinks of this sort of corruption. More wincing in anticipation.)

Langley likes to pontificate. He’s always done it – before the war, his certainties as the older brother were something for Homer to look up to – but now all he’s sure of is the meaninglessness of just about everything. He is subject to depressions which Homer shares by default as the house sinks into gloom. But at other times he has projects. What he seems to be striving for is to reach the essence of things through different processes of research of his own invention. This is Homer’s explanation for the collecting habit he gets into. Perhaps the next pianola he buys, for instance, will be the perfect one, the one that will render all the others obsolete and unnecessary. But the project that will, Homer tells us, eventually lead some rooms in the house being filled to the ceiling is his determination to reach the essence of current affairs, of news. By buying every newspaper every day, he will be able to create a distillation of every kind of story. Then he will be able to create a single edition of his own paper that will contain, in essence, every possible news story, ever. Nobody will ever have to buy another.

What I love about this is how plausible it is. Not the project, which even Langley seems to doubt will ever actually be completed, but the logic of his reasoning. For him, everything and everybody – sports stars, scientific or musical geniuses, politicians – is replaceable. His project, taking hours of every day, is to prove that nobody and nothing is unique. He doesn’t say it, but it’s a deep denial of individuality that makes perfect sense to him.

Things are beginning to go wrong. Homer drops dark hints about the way their investments are going bad even before the Crash – though not so bad that they can’t carry on living in the house – and the way they need to think about making money. After the dismissal of two servants – the butler because Homer didn’t like him, the maid – Homer’s ‘inamorata’ in Langley’s phrase – because she had taken to wearing their dead mother’s jewellery and seemed clandestinely ambitious. They go to clubs for unsatisfactory human contact, meet a gangster who, once, sends over a pair of prostitutes for them – which feeds Langley’s cynicism, but reminds Homer of how much he misses the vividly remembered presence of Julia in his bed.

And now they’ve annoyed a cop. We know it isn’t going to get any better, because, well, Homer has told us. But that’s just plot, what there is of it. These first chapters, if that’s what they can be called, are full of a kind of wistfulness, and not only for chances not taken. (The chance that is really causing the narrator a lot of sadness in his old age is the parting with Mary Elizabeth, which he can evoke in memory as though it is happening now.) These two men – apparently led by Langley, but we have to be careful here – are at odds with life as lived by most of the people around them. I don’t just mean that they flout convention, as when Perdita, a possible future wife for Langley early on, is mortified by the presence of Julia eating at table like a guest. Or, for that matter, when Langley chooses to keep the music going when their cook’s grandson, a jazz player, moves in – even though it costs him his marriage to another convention-bound woman.

The clue, I think, is in Homer’s descriptions of his encounters with women. He seems to know that somehow there must be way to go beyond that adolescent attitude to sex portrayed in the blue movie. Homer is fond of sex, is easily led on when Julia arrives unannounced in his bed and is genuinely moved by the considerate attitude shown by the prostitute sent by the gangster. But somehow – and I don’t only mean in this respect – he seems to feel there must be more to life than what seems to be on offer. America in the 20h Century is failing both him and his brother.

8 April
Middle third – as far as the letter from the Congo
Somehow I previously managed not to mention either Homer’s memory of smells or the way that Langley always couches his explanations of the world (or his own behaviour within it) in grandly philosophical terms. The big set-piece smell-fest in the early years is to do with the changing traffic in New York. In the early years of the century the essentially rustic smells of horses, the equipment that goes with them – and what they leave on the street – are ever so slowly superseded by the smells – and the noise, obviously – of cars. It’s one of Doctorow’s ways of moving history on, collaged together with the things that are going on in family life. I was reminded of it when, decades later, the brothers find it necessary to get out of the big house for a while and sit with their backs to Central Park and breathe in the scents of early autumn.

Langley’s philosophical musings are often to do with his brother. When Homer insists that he is able to ‘see’ a three-dimensional picture of the world far more easily when drunk, Langley is able to pontificate on the possibility that perhaps the blind man’s vision is as good as, or even better than, that of the sighted. He doesn’t mention Plato’s Cave, but that’s what he’s talking about. (Cf Emma Donaghue’s Room, which I read last week, in which the connection is made rather more obviously.) Early in this middle third Langley has to bring all his cleverness into play in order to convince Homer and the cook that there is nothing strange in his keeping a Model T Ford in the dining room. Ontologically speaking, there is no valid distinction to be made between the outside, where the car would seem to belong, and the inside. For good measure he tries hooking it up with a generator – definitely an afterthought – but this is as much a failure as his other projects.

Not that such concepts as failure or success are allowed house-room. Homer’s descriptions of Langley’s increasingly bizarre collecting habits are merely factual. The first time we ever get a proper summation of what the house has become isn’t Homer’s assessment of it as a museum collection waiting to be curated but the view of the gangsters who come to hide out for a few days: it’s a rats’ nest, and the brothers look like down-and-outs. But this is after years of collecting, and I’m jumping the gun.

Doctorow never mentions dates, but we’ve recently had the moon landings so he’s covered at least four decades. Does it feel so long? I’m not sure it does, although it doesn’t feel rushed: we get a few memorable stories, often occupying a lot of pages, interspersed with Homer’s sketchy descriptions of how, for instance, as clothes and shoes wear out they put on the boots and army fatigues Langley buys up cheap after the Second World War. And so years pass without us noticing.

So what does happen? Plenty of things that suggest that Doctorow wants to use the story of these reclusive brothers to comment on American life. They’re not reclusive after Langley’s forthright attack on the morality of the police, but the process starts with the subsequent raid on the house, shocking in its violence, and the brothers’ night in jail. The court dismisses the charge against them and we’re into the realms of satire: Doctorow wants us to realise that certain cherished institutions really are as bad as Langley believes. But their retreat isn’t all Langley’s doing. In a neat bit of plotting, Doctorow makes the raid bring home to Homer that his blindness is a disability. This is the first time he realises – and he must be into his 30s now – that he really is not able-bodied. He begins to believe that he will never be able to make his way in the world.

Furher confirmation of the stupidity of the world comes in the next decade. They have Japanese servants now, a married couple who do their jobs to a level of Zen perfection. Along comes the outbreak of another war, and they are hounded out of their own neighbourhood and have to move in with the brothers. Homer, obviously, imagines life with the woman, whose girlish laughter… etc. Enter the FBI. Exeunt the Japanese, never to return and, not for the first time, as Langley rails impotently we’re entirely on his side.

The war is one of those rare peaks of activity in the brothers’ lives as the world thrusts itself at them. It doesn’t feel schematic, but we get Hasidic Jews collecting money for refugee ships, and the death of the massively talented musician in an all-Black air force unit. Doctorow reminds the brothers, and us, of the scale of the loss when a tinny recording-booth disc arrives after the news of the death. The cook leaves to be with the widow and new great-granddaughter in New Orleans. The brothers discover eating out, realise how expensive it is – Langley is becoming more and more careful with money – and they discover eating in, cheaply. It’s part of their retreat from the world: they are entirely on their own now.

As history moves on – VJ Day comes and goes – Doctorow has the brothers’ horizons narrowing bit by inevitable bit. The inside of the house is cramped by the piles of stuff that Langley buys in cheap, and then he puts up shutters against the growing numbers of creditors demanding payment. Meanwhile – outside and inside are always running parallel in that unobtrusive way that Doctorow has of making it seem feasible – nothing in the outside world convinces Langley his single-edition newspaper project isn’t viable: the same thing just keeps on happening. Nuclear weapons are simply man’s self-destructive tendencies manifest on a larger scale than usual. The Korean War is, well, another war. Their increasingly reclusive lives don’t exactly seem normal, but they don’t seem mad either. And Langley does buy a television – then several others – but they stop watching fairly soon when it becomes clear how awful it is.

Time for another one of those rare peaks of activity: there’s a phone call from a member of Vincent’s gang. He’s the gangster who made a pet of Homer for a short time decades before, and he needs a hideout. And for four days – a period that takes up quite a large fraction of this short novel – the brothers’ lives are reflected back on them as the gang members pick their way amongst the detritus of decades. But it’s a minor victory for Homer when he is able to come up with a way of escaping when they are left tied to chairs with clotheslines.

I’m beginning to realise that this novel is really about how memory works. The big movements in a life – how two bright young men become recluses – are incidental to one-off events like this. I’m beginning to think that the whole novel is really a metaphor for the process of growing old – they must be heading towards their 60s now – and I’m finding it more and more convincing as it goes on. We get more events – we’re in the 1960s, so it’s campus demonstrations and the moon landings – and, through Langley, Doctorow makes it all seem predictable: whether it’s true or not, old men are convinced they have seen it all before. Inevitably – I seem to be using that word a lot – he is disgusted at the banality of golf on the moon and bible quotations mouthed by the astronaut in the orbiting capsule.

There’s art in these chapters. While the Japanese are in the house Homer imagines that his life with the woman could be inside one of his parents’ woodcuts – they sound like Hokusais in the details of his descriptions – and when the FBI haul them off, the brothers are intrigued by the Netsuke pieces they leave. (They are also intrigued by their tandem bicycle, and briefly use it to keep fit before igets buried like everything else.) Langdon has a long-term project, involving diet and eye exercises, to improve Homer’s sight. Now, in the late 1960s, he decides he is going to create colourful, tactile paintings that will enable Homer to ‘feel’ colours. They sound like Abstract Expressionism and, possibly in a satirical comment on Doctorow’s part, they have no effect on Homer. His final, failed, attempt is a comment on the moon landings – think craters and, somewhere, a golf club – and they both know it’s rubbish.

And there are more thoughts about love – does he use the word? – and Mary Elizabeth. She is a kind of archetypal ideal for him, and he is never so completely able to recreate the sensations of a past time as when thinking about her. They receive a letter from her, in the Congo – Doctorow seems to have deliberately chosen the most desperate country in the Third World – and Homer’s bitter regrets reach a peak of awfulness. We know it won’t get any better… except for Jacqueline, whoever she might be.

12 April
The final third
This novel just gets better. I keep wondering how many threads Doctorow has kept running, from the details of a life in a house in which all the services are being closed down one by one, to the human need for fellowship and love, to the inevitability of the process of growing old. What is so clever is how Doctorow makes all the threads seem plausibly part of the same pair of lives. I’ve just finished digesting the implications of the horrifying final sentences and realise that everything that has happened has been leading inexorably to this: the scope of Homer’s existence has been reduced to the dimensions of his own body and, somehow, to an even smaller space than that. He is now entirely deaf as well as blind, regrets the consciousness he retains that has been cut adrift from everyone and everything. Early on in this novel I speculated about how old Homer might be compared to the author’s age of 78. Now, Homer is the aging process personified: Doctorow seems to be assuring us, and he should know, that it comes down to this.

I’ve never read anything like it. I used to think that the author who captured the sadness and horror of the process most perfectly was Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections. But Alfred in that novel is only one of several characters, whereas in Homer and Langley, in the end, it comes down to one. This, Doctorow seems to be saying, is the tragedy of everybody’s life. And me, I’m a sucker for existentialist critiques of the human condition.

So what happens? There’s another interlude – a whole month this time – during which the house has other people living in it. They’re outsiders again, but hippies rather than gangsters. They identify with the brothers’ apparent rejection of what they don’t care about either, but Homer is dismissive of any real connection. Except… if we’re to believe him – and that’s becoming an ever more contentious thing to do – a young woman is happy to share his bed for a time. Inevitably, he thinks of mary Elizabeth. There’s a city-wide power cut and, for a brief time in the house that has become the country of the blind, the man who hasn’t needed sight for decades is king. Doctorow doesn’t have Homer making a big thing of it: it’s just another of those occasional peaks in the life of this narrator’s extraordinary consciousness. But that night, the hippies leave forever. So it goes.

From then on it’s all downhill. Outside, there’s presidential malfeasance and the mass suicides of cult members. Most harrowing of all – Langley is so upset he bolts the shutters closed, never to open them again – four nuns are murdered in South America, in the village where, Mary Elizabeth’s last letter told them, she was living with ‘three of her sisters.’ Urk. Inside, the services are all being cut off, one by one. Each time it happens, it gives Langley a short-lived respite from depression and the brothers are brought together briefly to make the best of coping. And, on the morning when Langley walks half the length of Manhattan to go and pay off the mortgage downtown – a walk that earns a news photographer a Pulitzer prize, because the brothers have been news for some time now – Homer meets Jacqueline.

The fact that the meeting is an almost impossible coincidence – Homer is about to be killed on Fifth Avenue on his way to the park for the first time in years, just as she is turning up to the house – might well be one of Doctorow’s nudges to the reader: as Homer edges, or lurches, towards the last quarter of the century, we should beware of everything we read. It’s like the coincidence of the power cut coming at the moment when it was right for the hippies to leave: it works at a symbolic level, so live with it. As if we didn’t already know it, this has never been a sociological study of two eccentrics. Homer, more helpless as the years go on, is Everyman – which happens to be the title of a different exploration of the aging process by another grand old man of American literature, Philip Roth.

The encounter with Jacqueline, and the enjoyable afternoon they spend as though in a Paris street cafe, seems real enough, as real as any of the other high points in the novel so far. It galvanises Homer, sends him to the barber, and makes him consider buying his first new suit in decades – at a discount as a sop to Langley. She has promised to return, and Homer describes – well, what does he describe? There is a restaurant meal, her urging him to write his life story, even sex, which he tells us he doesn’t remember. In fact, he’s already warned us that none of it might be true; though in his recounting of it he still has some of his hearing – he plays the restaurant piano, although not without some false starts – as he writes, he is in a cocoon of deafness that renders dreaming and reality almost indistinguishable.

And we are in the final pages of the book. Homer decides that Langley probably never expected the dieting and exercise regime to have any effect on his sight, that it was really an expression of fraternal solidarity, even love. It goes with his brother’s affection for the cats he acquires to cope with their massive problem with rats, with his determination to learn braille so that he can place Homer’s fingers on the letters to spell out the latest news. Well, maybe. But it doesn’t stop Homer’s life shrinking, by the end, to the mattress he sleeps on and the tiny space for his typewriter and his path to the toilet. Langley has booby-trapped the house against intruders, so that it isn’t safe for him to wander, however carefully. From the huge crash that Homer feels rather than hears, and the fact that Langley no longer brings him food afterwards, it’s clear that even Langley wasn’t safe.

We only find out about the crash a couple of sentences from the end. Before that, Homer finds different ways to tell us that he has lost faith in his ability to assure himself of his own reality. Only the touch of his brother confirms it. But then…. ‘Where is Langley? Where is my brother?’

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