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Matt Bell, The Collectors

Matt Bell's The Collectors (Caketrain Press, 2009) is a lovely and elegant fictionalization of the final days of the tragic Collyer brothers. The Collyers were reclusive hoarders who filled their Harlem brownstone with junk for decades before finally being found dead - Langley Collyer crushed under a mound of debris, the blind and helpless Homer starved - in 1947. Their story has been heavily explored by writers of both fiction (including E.L. Doctorow, who recently published a widely-exposed novel on the brothers a few months ago) and non-fiction, but Bell brings a fresh perspective to their sad tale. His novella consists of several dozen ultra-short chapters, many of them only one or two pages, which are divided into five interspersed groups: one for Homer, one for Langley, one for descriptions of the possessions which clog their home, one for the narrator, and one for a couple of outsiders (the policeman who first enters their home, and a city sanitation worker who later labors to clear out the house).

Homer's chapters poignantly show him as a helpless dependent of his older brother, one whose days are spent confined to an armchair drinking brandy and consuming a diet of oranges and pipe tobacco as Langley putters around him. Langley's chapters, in contrast, present a man of action who accumulates all of the junk on nightly excursions through the city and, once the junk begins to overwhelm the house, tries to organize it all to some extent in a hopeless effort to make the squalorous house remain liveable. The author admirably resists any outright explanation or rationalization for Langley's actions, though he does subtly suggest that the hoarding represents Langley's obsessive urge to fill a major void that has existed in their lives since childhood.

Most interesting of all, however, is the role of the narrator, who is the writer of the story itself, looking back from the modern day over the intervening decades. The narrator - every bit as obsessive as Langley Collyer - imagines himself in the Collyer house just before the brothers' deaths, trying futilely to help them. His inability to change the Collyers' fate is an insightful metaphor for a writer's inability (in the narrator's estimation) to effect genuine change and have a meaningful impact on society - especially one who writes about the distant past.

The Collectors is a very thoughtful and well-crafted meditation on loneliness, belonging and the writer's role in society, one which I know I'll be returning to again and again in the coming years.

February 5, 2010 in Books | Permalink