My avatar died. I know, in video games, you normally get an extra life, but in this game, my avatar died and he stayed dead. In the last part of the game, I played as his son. Now, I know it’s juvenile, bordering on mentally deficient, to think mortal thoughts because a video game character croaks. But what can I do? I haven’t read The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Who knows, maybe even Tolstoy would have mourned for his avatar, if he’d been playing the same game as me, for, like, the better part of a month. Death presents itself, personally, to each of us, in strange ways. In E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley, two men decline to live, and become recluses. Their story is about how, even standing still – even sat by an Xbox – we die.
Decline is a funny word, meaning “to say no” and “to fall apart”. In Doctorow’s book, the narrator’s sight goes before the first paragraph is out. “I’m Homer, the blind brother,” he tells us. All that’s terrible and practical about his story is there from the start. Homer and his brother Langley are based on the infamous Collyer brothers, figures from New York social history, who achieved infamy by never doing anything with their lives. Their great failure was their house, which, at the time of their deaths, contained 130 tons of ephemera (a word made bitterly ironic because they kept all their crap). 25,000 books, 14 pianos, 3 dressmaking dummies, a Model T Ford… Each object usurped an experience, until, gingerly, they edged out of time.
It’s odd to have two shut-ins as heroes; men who, by definition, don’t wish to be seen. Blind – perhaps as a favour to his author –, Homer stops looking at the world shortly after the twentieth century begins. After that, he reflects on the departed more than the living. Of his parents, he tells us: “They and their times and all its concerns have gone down together… I remember not one word that either of them ever said.” The statement is so terse, it seems heartless; the words of someone incapable of grief. But Homer isn’t being cruel. He only says something we know to be true. We are the product of our moment. Inescapably, the moment claims us. A movie you love becomes a “classic”. Your favourite song reminds you of the past. No matter what you do, you get old. Death isn’t terrible; it’s a terrible awareness. A countdown is only tense when you can hear it.
The Collyers, in the book, are godless men. “We had a joke,” says Homer, “Someone dying asks if there is life after death. Yes, comes the answer, only not yours.” Homer’s brother takes great satisfaction in having no faith. He even makes a vow “to do whatever it might take to avoid going to Heaven.” Hoarding things is a means to spite God. As though, by denying obsolescence, by denying that all things have their time and place, you can deny your own inconstant fate. Langley, unlike Homer, never doubts his scheme. He doesn’t have his brother’s introspection, his author’s voice. He doesn’t even believe in the individual, only his own “Theory of Replacements”, where every life is just a copy of a copy, devoid of change.
Women offer some solace. Even deadened Homer is brought to life by his “sweet weeping hard-nippled and felonious bedmate”, a Hungarian maid named Julia, who steals his late mother’s jewellery and plots to become his spouse. She doesn’t last in the Collyer household, too lively, too changeable, “a prototype of the gender with which, through the years, Langley and [Homer]…find [themselves] incompatible.” Turning your back on the world is what men do. Few hermits have breasts. Homer yearns, for years, for a girl he once taught to play piano. But she moves out, lives, and dies, while he’s still imagining how to get her into bed. No-one wins anybody by thinking about them. All nerds know this, to their regret.
There’s a line from Auden that Homer likes quoting: “Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle”. It’s from “The Wanderer”, which seems the wrong poem for a book about two men who don’t leave the house. But another line from the poem: “Protect his house/ His anxious house where days are counted…” seems more appropriate. People wander farther in their heads than they ever go on foot. Where is death but inside you? The exterior life, the one Homer and Langley reject, is not impersonal, it’s a way of breaching the walls of consciousness. Without society, we are entombed. If we die, unknowing of the world, it’s no better than a video game character’s death. The way to be whole is to be seen through another’s eyes.