When Literature Disappoints

12 Aug

Through a the Visual Bookshelf application on Facebook, I was given the opportunity to receive and review an advanced reader’s copy of the new E.L. Doctorow novel, Homer & Langley.  Having forgotten I had this Facebook application, receiving notification that I was chosen for this opportunity was quite the pleasant surprise.  If only the book had lived up to the expectation.

Here is the information listed on the application about the novel, which I believe is being released 1 September 2009;

From Ragtime and Billy Bathgate to The Book of Daniel, World’s Fair, and The March, the novels of E. L. Doctorow comprise one of the most substantive achievements of modern American fiction. Now, with Homer & Langley, this master novelist has once again created an unforgettable work.

Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers–the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers–wars, political movements, technological advances–and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.

Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously written, this mesmerizing narrative, a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York’s fabled Collyer brothers, is a family story with the resonance of myth, an astonishing masterwork unlike any that have come before from this great writer.

And here’s my review;

Despite my excitement to receive and start what would be not only my first E. L Doctorow novel, but also an advanced copy of his latest work, I must admit to being extremely disappointed.  My expectations were quite high and now that I’ve finished, the two central characters fail to be remarkable enough for me to compliment just as they are too ordinary to make the columns of Langley’s own eccentric newspaper.

There is a fundamental problem with the novel’s plot.  The sheer number of events that happen to these two brothers renders their story contrived rather than serendipitous.  How fitting that by the end of the novel the lives of Homer and Langley are suffocated by their stacks of newspapers, for the reader has been stifled throughout the entire text by the volume of events they are supposed to accept as chance.  Not so ironically, this parallel fails to evoke empathy on the part of the reader.

Doctorow’s characterizations are likewise confining for the reader.  Homer can “see through” everything despite his lack of physical sight.  Though Doctorow was likely trying to be profound in depicting the blind brother as the one with the clearest social vision, the attempt falls short in that Homer’s character can elicit neither sympathy nor interest from a reader.  A character with perfect social vision who is not “taken in” by even one major historical movement is unrealistic to the point of annoyance.   Homer’s major shift in character comes a mere six pages before the end of the novel in a fantasy of his own creation, thus paradoxically drawing close to and alienating a potentially sympathetic audience.  He finally admits some “misery,” breaking down the previously impenetrable walls around him just to have this ripped away from a reader grasping for any association with the novel’s protagonist because the admission never actually takes place (202).  Had Homer proven himself a reliable narrator before this point, perhaps the unreality of his drunken conversation with Jacqueline could have been glossed over.  The majority of the novel is riddled with narrative inconsistencies.  Homer frequently describes in detail the appearance of objects and people without offering an explanation of how this was obtained.  The disconnect between the reader and Homer could have been advantageous to Doctorow – the reader becomes the youth from the text throwing rocks at the dilapidated Collyer house while simultaneously being able to look within – rather, it becomes an insurmountable chasm.

Still, this fate is better than that of the other characters that are relegated to static stereotypes, including but not limited to, the coronet playing Creole youth, the sexually liberated and frequently stoned hippies, the industrious and subservient Japanese couple, and the virgin nun turned martyr for the “lost” people of civilizations unknown.  Even Langley is affected; he is less mad than merely a cookie-cutter image of the injured and embittered veteran, cynical of the government, society, and religion.

The incidental couple of the novel, Homer and Jacqueline, hold unfulfilled potential.  There is poetry in the idea of two lovers being the completion of the other.  Homer and Jacqueline can both “see” what cannot actually be witnessed, in a practical and prophetic sense, respectively.  However, is it any surprise that the man that “sees” through American society is saved by the stereotypical European femme-noir with her smoker’s voice and exotic allurement?  Mais, non.


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