The circumstances of the Collyer Brothers is a study in human behavior—it is stunning. I’ve wanted to read this one since it first came out, and found a copy at a used book store back in May, so I adopted it as the pile of books in my arms kept growing. I’m slowly making my way through this pile of books…
The one thing that made my brain itch was Doctorow’s breaking from the known facts of the Collyer Brothers—it is understood that writers are allowed liberties while writing about historical events, but when writing about real people—even in a fictionalized retelling—can be a bit touchy if the facts are tweaked off kilter. (Of course, I did research on the Collyer Brothers to satisfy my curiosity about the real them. The photographs of the Collyer house on 5th Avenue are very haunting.) The thing about people like them, there’s the “legend” or the mythology associated with their story—in every legend there’s a grain of truth—in a good portion of fiction, there are always grains of truth that have been harvested, but there is also the bending of truth—anything from the names have been changed to protect the innocent sort of stuff to extravagant exaggeration. With that said, it wasn’t a deal breaker for it was written from a fascinating point of view, so my brain itch got over itself and I enjoyed the reading journey as it prattled on at a decent clip, the immersion was complete and seductive. The story as Doctorow tells it is creepy and yet tender—an odd sensation—sensational, yet respectful, sympathetic.
The plethora of hoarding stories, such as crazy cat ladies and rat infested homes piled to the ceiling with bales of old newspapers, a maze through stacks of things like books or Cool Whip containers, and the assorted junk that might be useful in some way yet to be thought of has become a media fascination. There’s always that one eccentric in the town, the neighbor on the street, or the one person in the family that does that “something outside of normal” that causes everyone to perk up and take notice. The one’s who try to intervene often hit a brick wall of indignant noncompliance with a resolute “fuck off, it’s my house, my life.” For some of them it’s a lifestyle that’s gone awry or life just becoming overwhelming after a crisis of loss or the decline of health—there are many reasons why things like this happen, the psychology is interesting—what went wrong to have things get so far out of hand? We are all fragile in that way—it really doesn’t take much to topple the most normal of us—the us who should “know better”—and then there are people who just don’t “know better” and behave according to their experience. The Collyer’s knew better—then things changed.
For years, I’ve passed by a house on my way to work and have noticed the changes that have taken place there—the garage door that is left open just enough to allow the family cat to come and go seems to have a great deal of clutter formed just inside that opening. I’ve seen the cat sitting in the driveway, contemplating the gap as if it is 1) listening for a mouse; or 2) Kitty is thinking, “I can’t find my food dish, this place sucks.”
There are other stories that I can tell, but I will save them for another time…
The “how come” part is puzzling at best, but yet understandable as one accumulates things during one’s lifetime and then must find a “home” for these things after a trip to the bookstore or the antique shop or the beach if one enjoys collecting pretty stones. I am a collector of things. Lately, I feel sad when going into antique shops and used bookstores—looking over the former contents of other people’s homes—I have felt the urge to call my acquisitions “adoptions” as I empathize with the history of an object—thinking of the person who once, received it, held it in their hands, dusted it, and revered it. One will especially understand this after clearing out the home of deceased parents, now that I’m absorbing the heirlooms and family related ephemera that should be kept in the family, I am personally feeling overwhelmed by things and the associated memories of those things and then the creation of new meanings for those things. Incorporating these things into my own accumulation has been challenging—I’m contemplating new storage options and the eventual renovation of our attic space to take on the overflow of dimensional memories. I light-heartedly joke with our son—“Someday all of this will be yours—the pretty stones, just throw them out into the garden. Beyond that, you’re going to have one hell of an auction someday.”
From pages 207-208:
There are moments when I cannot bear this unremitting consciousness. It knows only itself. The images of things are not the things in themselves. Awake, I am in a continuum with my dreams…My memories are pale I prevail upon them again and again. They become more and more ghostly. I fear nothing so much as losing them altogether and having only my blank endless mind to live in. If I could go crazy, if I could will that on myself, I might not know how badly off I am, how awful is this awareness that is irremediably aware of itself. With only the touch of my brother’s hand to know that I am not alone.