E.L. Doctorow’s new novel, Homer and Langley (Random House; $26), imagines the lives of New York’s famous Collyer brothers, prosperous eccentrics who dropped out of society and filled their town house with collections of obsolete, strange or otherwise broken-down objects. Doctorow’s narrative extends into the late twentieth century, but the real-life Collyers were found dead in 1947, Langley felled by the traps he had laid for intruders and Homer, who is blind, a victim of starvation. –Christine Smallwood
What was your research process like?
I didn’t do any research. I just used what I knew. I was a boy when they died: the whole house was discovered to be what it was, and it became instant folklore. Instant. And when my room was sloppy my mother would say, It’s the Collyer brothers! I did look at photographs. I took the position that they were folklore, they were mythology, and that not research but interpretation was the proper response.
The Collyer brothers remind me a bit of Grey Gardens.
I never made that connection. I would make a distinction–the meaning I find is quite different. I just regard those women as kind of pathetic, dysfunctional messes. But I always had a feeling that these guys, there was a secret to them. Because they’d come from a well-to-do background and opted out. That was the essential idea in my mind. Go in the house, close the door, pull down the shutters, isolate yourself from the surrounding world. It was a kind of emigration. They were leaving the country. I regarded the book as a form of breaking and entering. They lived in their imaginations.
It’s also a novel about stuff.
Accounts have called them pack rats. I think that’s a demeaning, inadequate phrase. What they are is aggregators. The things they bring into the house–there’s a history there of the things we’ve thought we needed over time. At this point I think the book becomes imponderable. You can say it’s about inevitable human isolation. You can say it’s about entropy. You can say it’s about the end of an empire. I tend to agree with any reasonable interpretation. Anyway, all of us feel we need an awful lot. And the technology keeps changing, but the minute any technology appears it becomes indispensable.