Friday, February 26, 2010

What the hell, E.L.?

I read E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime as a teenager and was enthralled. Reading Homer and Langley led me to wonder if he’s become a terrible writer over the years or if my adolescent literary sensitivities were simply not as developed as I like to believe. This novel, which is loosely based on the lives of a couple of Manhattan crazies, is a Forest-Gump-style survey of the 20th century, but without even the questionable charm of Tom Hanks’s goofy fish-lips to keep it going. That gimmick (because I did not go to creative writing school, I will call it the “guy who experiences everything significant within a generation” genre) is one I find someone clunky and contrived, but at first the writing itself is not so bad--it moves along at a nice clip and the way the extremely (psychopathically) quirky characters are introduced is rather subtle. The narrator, Homer, starts out as a neat, smart, rich kid but after weathering the great war and the great flu he comes out in his 20s as a blind and aimless grownup and then proceeds to pretty much stay that way for the remainder of his (looong--remember, this story’s gonna cover most of the significant events of the 20th century) life.
But that limited initial charm quickly wears off. Here’s a short list of this novel's ruinously (in my opinion) distracting flaws:

THE WOMEN: While ingenious, sensitive and inspired in their decisions to sleep with our narrator, once they’ve come out from under his covers and are fully clothed they all turn out to be conniving and coarse, or at the very least kind of idiotic. Perhaps (and it's a long shot) this is meant to reflect the character flaws and limitations of the narrator himself, but it’s done so blithely—such a naive execution of unthinking misogyny—that it instead reflects rather poorly on the novelist.

THE BLINDNESS: Most of the time it doesn’t matter, and there’s something to be said for that. The narrator generally doesn’t see himself as particularly handicapped, and manages through sound and memory and assumption to describe physical settings in great detail—and it’s believable. All fine so far, right? Unfortunately Doctorow uses it as a crutch (or…er…cane?) when he needs to describe something in greater detail. All along we think old Homer is getting along just fine, familiar with the world, comfortable and savvy in it through a certain refined sensitivity to the molecules in the air and solid matter around him. Then, when Doctorow wants to go into deep description mode, he up and turns to the nearest sighted character, usually Langley, who actually SPEAKS the description in expository dialogue directly to his brother Homer. It’s jarring and out of place and reads like so much blah blah blah.

THE STEREOTYPES: Are stereotypes necessary element in the “guy who experiences everything” genre? I seem to remember a few in Forrest Gump. In Homer & Langley the black cook has a son who’s a self-taught musician and basically single-handedly invents jazz (somebody had to, right?), and the Japanese couple are ever so tidy and decoratively inclined, with “reedy” accents and quiet, respectful ways…aaaand…get ready for it…they also eat sushi for dinner every night and own a netsuke collection (this despite being impoverished and homeless housecleaners).

…or whatever the proper term is for when something is described in enough detail that we know what it is but the writer, out of sheer obstinance or ignorance or I don’t know what, refuses to name it… For instance, the Japanese couple mentioned above doesn’t “make sushi for dinner,” but rather are observed decoratively laying pieces of raw fish on delicate mounds of rice. And we don’t know that they have a netsuke collection, just that they collect small ivory carvings. I guess the sushi example is forgivable if one assumes that in the 40’s sushi was not a commonly acknowledged cuisine choice, but if Homer is interested enough to narrate all the details about these little ivory figurines, why wouldn’t he have just asked the couple what they were? (Then Doctorow could have them respond, in their polite and reedy accents, “Oh, they’re netsuke, of course, all Japanese people collect them!”)
The worst example of this, though, is the R. Crumb type of character. We know he’s tall and thin and morose and perverted. We know he draws dirty old men with women with big legs’n’ behinds. We know one of his stock characters is a cat. We know he soon becomes famous for his zeitgeist-y comics…but we somehow miraculously don’t know his name! Mind you, this isn’t a passing acquaintance; in the novel the “Crumb who shall not be named” lives with Homer and Langely for over a month, and all of his hippie cohorts are identified by name. Either it’s R. Crumb or it’s freaking not, but what exactly is achieved by not being specific?

Because of the abovementioned issues I cannot in good conscience recommend Homer & Langley. However, I do recommend the Wikipedia entry under “Collyer Brothers.” Their actual story (including a good deal of psychopathic nastiness missing from Doctorow’s version, and minus the novelistic gimmicks) is absolutely fascinating.

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