During Camp NaNoWriMo, last month, I read five books, and started a sixth. Three out of six of these books were written by the same author: E.L. Doctorow.
There’s something about the pacing of his writing that keeps you enthralled. We either see events steamrolling out of control or he’ll pluck his way gingerly through the morass of details, holding fast to your feet as you wade into the mire with him.
My favorite of his, so far, would have to be Homer & Langley, based on the true story of two hermits who hid themselves away in their home in Harlem.
The entire novel is like a poem about two brothers (Homer and Langley Collyer), myths themselves, who have been strung up among the stars, a constellation at last.
Did these two fellows really befriend a mob boss, by the name of Vincent, in a strip club, who promptly forgot who they were when he was in dire need of a place to heal after a gun fight? And how could two millionaires possibly waste away in a house with tiny ivory figurines, a rotting Model T, and thousands of editions of the daily newspaper piled high to the ceiling?
Unlike most of the books you’re likely to read, all of these strange things you interpret through the ears of a blind man.
“I had my own medical theories, perhaps this was a disposition given to the progeny of a doctor, but I believed my eyes and ears were in some intimate nervous association, they were analogous parts of a sensory system in which everything connected with everything else, and so I knew what had been the fate of my vision would be the same for my hearing.”
The rhythm of his words is like music for the eyes. I’m not sure whether he labored over their order within a sentence, but it feels more like they just rolled off his tongue, as if Doctorow was actually Homer typing out his autobiography, while Langley pushed his fingers down on the keys. While he’s speaking, the musician in him comes out in full force, the meter indicative of someone singing in time to the synapses firing in his head.
I’m not sure if anything really happens throughout E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley, like a few of Henry Miller’s more meandering works, but there is a prevailing theme of time and its degrading effect on the human form, dragging with it strong sentiments you hold onto like the grudge of a lost love or the sight of a maid cleaning a chandelier years ago, the memory of which has just begun to materialize, in present day, as the entire crystal assemblage comes crashing to the ground; the result of steady burrowings of unidentified vermin.
Ragtime was the first E.L. Doctorow book I was introduced to. It’s dangerous, living with a fellow bibliophile, there’s never a shortage of material immediately at hand for one to gorge upon…
I must say, I really enjoyed Ragtime; it quite reminded me of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, the latter I have not finished, but I promise to get back to some day. Too sensitive for my own good, I’ll set aside a novel if it affects me in such a way that I become traumatized by developments I might not have been able to predict. In this way, I paused many a time, reading Henry Miller’s works, too, but The Colossus of Maroussi had me hooked straight through. I can’t quite put my finger on a reason as to why I might have suddenly stopped short while reading The Tropic of Capricorn. That man has a tendency to leave the mind unhinged, verging on alternate realities.
Now, reading The March, it’s as if Doctorow was there during the Civil War. The ever diligent historical aficionado, it’s as if his home was ransacked and he and his fellow slaves ambivalently joined the militia, coming out of a few skirmishes unscathed, to put on the uniforms of enemy soldiers on a whim, saying, “This is the life, my man!” as they pat each other on the back, while pulling dregs from a dead man’s bottle. Thus is the appeal of Doctorow’s all-encompassing world building.
But back to Homer & Langley and the sightlessness which lends much to imagination:
“There are moments when I cannot bear this unremitting consciousness. It knows only itself. The images of things are not the things in themselves. Awake, I am in a continuum with my dreams. I feel typewriters, my table, my chair to have that assurance of a solid world, where things take up space, where there is not the endless emptiness of insubstantial thought that leads to nowhere but itself.”
Not all books need to be tied up neatly with a bow. Some plotholes are meant to gouge like a knife hit to the side, leaving you somewhat empty by the end of the ride.
There is something almost warm and cozy about this one, in particular, that I think back fondly on. Somehow I felt the need to write about it before I could continue on with The March, it’s affected me so. And how could it not when the main characters’ morals are so thoroughly mapped out? You can relate to the idea of being hospitable to a few hippies for weeks at a time, who situated themselves into the Collyers’ home as if they were permanent fixtures on the walls themselves. Yet the brothers would push away any propagandizing fiends who tried to darken their doorstep, aside from the one journalist, Jacqueline, who we meet for a brief few moments, then never heard from again.
Either way, among the three Doctorow’s I’ve been priviledged enough to read, Homer & Langley has been my favorite so far. The story is so deeply rooted in philosophy, without a hint of objectivity as to the main character’s plight while his senses slowly begin deteriorating.
You really don’t know what is real by the end of the book. Is that how it happened in real life? The two brothers didn’t see it coming, as the ceiling collapsed on top of them? Maybe they preferred it that way, blind to the world around them, yet analyzing everyone else with minute scrutiny.
Featured image via Dinah Williams Dark Alleys of American History