Sunday, September 26, 2010

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

In his wonderful soap opera-y novel Ragtime, Doctorow became one of the first writers to fully embrace writing fiction with real people in it. What’s interesting about this novel about the Collyer brothers—possibly the most famous of the famous hoarders (one brother died under a pile of his accumulated and booby-trapped stuff and the other subsequently starved to death)—is the way Doctorow uses public knowledge of the characters as part of his storytelling. (Though just to be clear Doctorow does fictionalize some of the facts).

The novel is narrated by Homer, the blind brother who essentially cannot escape his brother Langley who has been made crazy by exposure to mustard gas during WWI. And Homer, in part because of his physical limitations, in part because of his emotional limitations, is slow to pick up on the fact that his brother is completely mad. And only in glimpses does he reveal the physical state of their house. The temptation for many writers would have been to glory in detailing that house, but Homer can’t see…he can’t tell us what the house looked like. And really he doesn’t need to. Because most readers know that story—and can certainly imagine. So Doctorow chooses to make this a very interior novel. I suppose that’s the fun of taking real people and putting them in fiction. Seeing life through their eyes as opposed to seeing their life through our eyes, which biography already allows us to do.

And yes, the fact that he is a blind storyteller named Homer also brings an additional layer to the story. Most readers will get the reference to the author of the Odyssey and the Iliad and will understand that the allusion is meant to grant an epic status to small and confined lives.

Full disclosure: I received my copy for free from Good Reads First Reads.

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