Unpacking the clutter and digging for meaning in Homer and Langley – a review


E. L. Doctorow, 2009

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. So along with everything else, all these helmets, boots, etc. ended up now where they had been deposited, artifacts of some enthusiasms of the past, almost as if we were a museum, though with our riches as yet uncatalogued, the curating still to come.

The curating still to come… the question that haunts the pages of E. L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley is: when does collecting turn into hoarding? What is the difference between the two? And what, by extension, is the difference between eccentricity and madness, non-conformity and delusion, independence and stifling isolation?

Collecting has historically been seen as an eccentric upper-class pastime – many museums were first founded to display the collections of a wealthy person with too much time on their hands. (Incidentally, I recently revisited one of my favourite museums, The Castle Museum in York, which was founded by Dr Kirk, an avid collector who often accepted objects in lieu of payment for his medical services).

But hoarding is an altogether more undesirable habit – an uncontrollable addiction that eventually renders the house of the afflicted unusable, dangerous, even unhygienic. It’s a physical manifestation of an inability to control, to say no, to move on.

Based on the true story of the Collyer brothers’ life and death in New York between the 1880s and the 1940s, Homer and Langley is a novel in which the symbolic physicalises, multiplies and spills over in hauntingly memorable images. If you’re not familiar with the story, the brothers have been dubbed history’s most famous hoarders. They gradually filled their Harlem brownstone with over 140 tonnes of collected items – and shut themselves away from the world in the process.

It’s a striking image that haunts the reader long after they turn the last page. That cluttered brownstone symbolises many things in this story: the brothers’ stubborn self-sufficiency, the passage of time and the accumulation of memories. Writing for The Guardian, Sarah Churchwell described the novel as ‘a satire on the hoarding impulse, [but] this is also an image of history itself, a labyrinth of detritus and information, all waiting to be found meaningful.’

This is the crux of the novel, the bittersweet twist: that the accumulation of material can never add up to much in the absence of an editor’s hand, a curator’s intervention ascribing meaning, argument and narrative.

It’s not for lack of trying. The novel’s elder brother, Langley, is convinced that each object is a valuable investment that will one day prove interesting and useful. This is best illustrated by his collection, over many years, of every daily newspaper. He intends to one day amalgamate them all into a single edition which will sum up the frequent occurrences of human existence and read true on any given day.

It’s a pessimistic outlook on life, as the younger, blind brother Homer observes:

Langley would never complete his newspaper project. I knew that and I’m sure he knew it as well. It was a crazy foolish hand-rubbing scheme that kept his mind in the mood he liked to be in. It seemed to give him the mental boost he needed to keep going – working on something that had no end other than to systematize his grim view of life. His energies sometimes seemed unnatural to me. As if he did all the things he did to keep himself among the living. Even so he would slip for days at a time into a discouraging lassitude. Discouraging to me, I mean. I would catch it sometimes. Nothing would seem to be worth doing and the house would be like a tomb.

Here we begin to unravel Langley’s character and motivations: he observes the world closely, but does not believe himself to be truly part of it. He needs to force energy to ‘keep himself among the living’. He derives pleasure and motivation from his ‘grim view of life’ – that existence is cyclical, and each day is much like any other.

There is also a recurring image of a fixed position: Langley ‘keeping his mind in the mood he liked to be in’, the brothers maintaining their parents’ brownstone residence throughout their life, and, here, Langley’s observation that…

I look at all these papers, he said, and they may come at you from the right or the left or the muddled middle but they are inevitably of a place, they are set like stone in a location that they insist is the center of the universe. They are presumptively, arrogantly local, and at the same time nationally bullish. So that is what I will be. Collyer’s One Edition for All Time will not be for Berlin, or Tokyo, or even London. I will see the universe from right here just like all these rags. And the rest of the world can go on with their dim-witted daily editions, whereas without their knowing it, they and all their readers everywhere will have been fixed in amber.

There is a jarring mirroring here: not just the hypocrisy that the housebound Collyers perceive others to be stuck in their ways, but that they believe themselves able to observe the entire human race like creatures ‘fixed in amber’ from the vantage point of their secluded existence. Both in real life and in the novel, for many New Yorkers, the brothers themselves were eccentric specimens for the townspeople to observe.

This sense of superiority runs throughout the novel and is expounded here:

Langley was convinced of this because it fit right in with his Theory of Replacements, which he had by now developed into a metaphysical sort of idea of the repetition or recurrence of life events, the same things happening over and over, especially given the prescribed limits of human intelligence, Homo sapiens being a species that, in his words, just didn’t have enough.

Under Langley’s Theory of Replacements, everything is an iteration of something that has come before. Thus, everything can be condensed into an ‘ultimate’, an exemplary – rather like a pessimistic version of Plato’s theory of Forms.

But Langley’s determination – which he is often unable to explain or defend – to collect seemingly important objects seems to contradict his own theory. If everything is replaceable, then why the need to collect and preserve?

Perhaps objects are different to events. Like Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots, an event is always a retelling of a story we’ve heard before. But an object is definite, distinct, a unique collection of atoms, a fixed point for dust to cling to through space and time. Events are the wind that blows through the house, objects are the debris left behind, memories turned solid.

The Theory of Replacements also colours the brothers’ relationships with other characters. It is misogynistic; Homer comes to consider all women as iterations of each other, thus able to stand in as replacements for the ‘ideal’ – specifically, for him, a young girl who lived in the house for a short time at an early date. Homer says of a later companion, Lissy:

Did anybody know what love was? Could unconsummated love exist without carnal fantasy, could it survive as love without recompense, without reward? No question that I had enjoyed Lissy’s giving of her body. So what did anybody love other than the genus, where one adorable creature could stand in for another?

The book itself is cluttered with knotted sentences and unanswered questions of this kind, prompting in the reader a desire to return and keep digging for meaning – not unlike the visitor’s desire to declutter a hoarder’s house.

Paradoxically, because they understand that everything is replaceable, the Collyer brothers believe themselves to be unique – the only ones who, in their isolation from society, view life from ‘the outside’. As such, they exclude themselves from their own theory: Until someone comes along as remarkably prophetic as we are, I’m obliged to ignore our existence. It’s another contradiction: if humanity is able to ‘flower’ into consciousness, then the worldview that everything repeats is debunked. By their very nonconformity the Collyers debunk their own theory of societal limitation. Either that, or they view themselves as so outside the world that they have no bearing on theories pertaining to it.

Another contradiction is that the brothers choose to live ‘outside’ society… in the middle of one of the world’s busiest cities. Again this reemphasises the metaphor: they cannot escape the busy, changing world outside. As the junk surrounds the brothers inside the building, the hated society surrounds the house itself. By their own stubbornness – staying in the old family home despite the changing neighbourhood around it – they purposefully overexpose themselves to the modern world they hate. Maddeningly difficult to pity, they are trying to do the impossible: remain unaffected by a world that knocks at their door and throws stones at their windows.

It’s worth noting that Homer, in whose mind we live in as readers, is often sceptical of Langley, harbouring his own private thoughts and opinions. However, Homer’s disability leaves him reliant on his older brother. The house becomes the physical manifestation of an echo chamber, Langley’s collected items physically trapping Homer just as Langley’s stubborn worldview sweeps the vulnerable Homer along with it.

This becomes particularly pronounced and painful towards the story’s end, when the tonnes of trash transform the home into a warren of dangerous tunnels, encasing the two brothers, particularly Homer who becomes deaf as well as blind in old age. Reliant only on physical sensations, he feels trapped inside his own mind.

I cannot bear this unremitting consciousness. It knows only itself […]. 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.

Towards its end, the novel becomes beautifully elegiac and nostalgic. The decaying, cluttered house is contrasted sharply with the earlier glamourous family dwelling, reflecting the simpler times of the boys’ childhoods.

Apparently the mysterious creature or family of creatures had so befouled their residence over the dining room that the sodden ceiling had buckled, looking, said Langley, like the bottom of the moon, and down came the chandelier, shattering against the Model T, the pendant crystals flying off in every direction and scattering the yowling cats.

I remembered seeing, as a child, one of my mother’s maids standing on a ladder under that chandelier and removing each crystal, cleaning it with a cloth, and hanging it back on its hook. She had let me hold one. I was surprised at how heavy it was – it was shaped like two slender pyramids with their bases stuck together and when I told her that she had smiled and said what a smart boy I was.

On the final page, Homer’s mourning for his youth focalises around the lack of clutter in the house, how he and Langley moved easily through space, unfettered by baggage.

I remember our house as it was in our childhood: a glorious elegance prevailed, calming and festive at the same time. Life flowed through the rooms unencumbered by fear. We boys chased each other up and down the stairs and in and out of the rooms. I took my piano lessons in the music room. We peeked from the hall at our parents’ resplendent, candlelit dinner parties. My brother and I could run out the front door and down the steps and across to the park as if it was ours, as if home and park, both lit by the sun, were one and the same.

‘I took my piano lessons in the music room’ – in other words, everything conformed to expectation, with rooms used for their intended purpose – no Model T Ford in the parlour here. Unlike the scared, stubborn social recluses they would later become, the boys run out of the front door and ‘across to the park as if it was ours’, no barriers between the city and the house, society and the individuals.

I talked earlier about the curator’s hand, assigning meaning to a mass of information. Doctorow himself, as the author of this semi-historical fiction, plays the role of curator. He takes the raw material of the real Collyer legend and creates a narrative. He makes several changes for artistic effect: swapping the brothers’ ages around, moving their house a couple of blocks to front Central Park, extending their lifespan.

But more than this, he gives the brothers beliefs which explain their puzzling actions. He puts words in the mouth of Langley – his Theory of Replacements, his Collyer’s One Edition for All Time – which go some way to turn their unconventional life into some kind of argument. In reality, when asked about his newspaper habit, the real Langley is reported to have said, “I am saving newspapers for Homer, so that when he regains his sight he can catch up on the news.”

The contrast between this response (suggesting either an evasive and surreal sarcasm or a pitiful but irrational delusion) and the theories that Doctorow gifts to his character perfectly encapsulates the tragedy at the heart of Homer and Langley: the ever-hopeful but pathetic futility of assigning meaning and reasoning to an action or object that has none. Writing for The Guardian in 2010, Sarah Churchwell identifies this ascribing of meaning as not just a central theme of the novel, but a desire central to the act of writing itself. ‘The curating is, in effect, what Doctorow is offering: finding meaning amid the mess in the classic artistic impulse to create order from chaos.’

In 208 pages Doctorow gave me more to think about than almost any other book I’ve ever read. Closing the book on 2 January 2022 after a dry spell of 367 days, I knew I had finally found a five-star read.

We had a joke, Langley and I: Someone dying asks if there is life after death. Yes, comes the answer, only not yours.

READ 30 DECEMBER 2021 – 2 JANUARY 2022

Review by Sarah Churchwell in The Observer: Homer and Langley by EL Doctorow

Review by Liesl Schillinger in The New York Times: The Odd Couple

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