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52 Books #1: Room

January 13, 2011

Shamelessly stolen Taking inspiration from books-n-music blog Largehearted Boy, here’s the first in what I intend to be a 2010 regular series. I customarily read more than one book a week, but ’52 Books’ will pick one book per week that strikes me as particularly worthy of mention (for good or bad), and will become, I hope, a sort of living archive of my reading.

Obviously, this being the 12th of January, I start already behind schedule, but here goes.

For a while the favourite on the shortlist for the 2010 Booker Prize, Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador) is a ‘behind the headlines’ novel which draws inspiration from several recent stories of horrific abuse cases, notably the Josef Fritzl case in Austria. Our narrator is Jack, a five year-old boy who has lived his entire life in captivity, inside a room eleven feet square, with his beloved Ma. Ma — we never learn her real name, nor that of her tormentor — was kidnapped seven years ago by a figure known to us as Old Nick, who regularly rapes her, has twice made her pregnant, and shows no interest whatsoever in letting her free.

So far, so sordid. By making Jack the narrator, Donoghue neatly sidesteps a whole bunch of potentially very problematic elements to the story. Old Nick’s nighttime visits are robbed of any unpleasant sense of voyeurism, the reader filling in the gaps as Jack, hiding in the wardrobe, concentrates the times the bed creaks, or on obsessively counting the number of teeth in his own mouth. Jack is observant and intelligent, but of course naive and disturbed in an extremely deep sense, and Donoghue very skilfully helps us see this eleven-foot world through his eyes, sharing in the strange and sometimes sweet rituals he and his Ma have devised. They do gymnastics, wearing a c-shaped mark in the cork floortiles from running ‘there and back’; they spend hours on crafts projects, building castles, rockets and an ‘eggshell snake’; and they Scream together on weekdays, trying to make themselves heard through the shatterproof glass of the Room’s single skylight. Jack’s whole world is Room, complete in and of itself: he thinks he, Ma and Old Nick are the only people alive and that everyone he sees on television occupies a variety of different planets, newcasters as real or unreal as the cartoon characters who are his friends.

Room is an oddly long book, spending its first half establishing the ‘rules’ of Room and Jack’s distinctive, definite article-shy consciousness and thought patterns (the rug, the stove and the bed are for instance known concretely and unarguably as Rug, Stove and Bed, the notion that these are categories and not unique items never occurring to Jack). At times this material reaches a bizarrely abstruse pitch, while the reader tunes into this voice, which, twinned with an attempt to replicate a five year-old’s syntax, make some sentences borderline incomprehensible. In the latter half, as Ma reenters and Jack enters for the first time the ‘real world’, the book loses this wicked fairytale focus and becomes rather more diffuse. I grew tired of the succession of family members called upon to meet and look after Jack — they’re sketches based on understandable, ‘realistic’ emotional responses (overweening attention; exasperation; even hatred for his being a child born of rape) and I have no doubt Donoghue researched these various reactions as thoroughly as possible — one is grateful that there are, for all the sensationalist reporting when one such is discovered, a minute few cases so horrific — but they feel a little token. Similarly, as Jack reacts to the outside world, finding pleasures and terrors in things we take for granted (rain, grass, ants, shops, cars), it starts to become clear that this could swell the book to monumental proportions, beyond its already over-capacity 400 — there’s no limit to the things Jack could be startled, charmed or alarmed by. Charm, however, is the word. This is a book which seeks to draw warmth and delight from its horrible and sordid scenario, and there are times when this feels disingenuous. When I first heard about Room, when it was merely referred to as ‘a novel inspired by the Josef Fritzl case’, I felt that this was a dangerous sort of thing to be inspired by. What Donoghue works hard to do, I think, is to avoid accusations of exploitation or of benefiting from other people’s misfortune, thus the emphasis on the quasi-cutesiness of the Room scenario. The jarring tone when Ma starts to describe her kidnapping and subsequent ordeals to unwilling Jack is sign that she has succeeded in this. It makes it difficult to achieve a smooth transition to the ‘real world’, therefore, and this is true in more ways than one.

With the first half of Room, Donoghue constructs a universe with inviolable rules. We have to believe utterly in the scenario, and I think we do: it’s claustrophobic and weird, and everything in it operates according to the laws Donoghue has established for it. It is, if you like, realistic, a significant achievement. This is its downfall too. It never seems to have crossed the mind of Ma, a courageous, resourceful and intelligent woman capable of raising a child in this bizarre environment, that there are only 10,000 possible combinations to the keypad that locks her into Room and therefore it’d take a relatively short time to try all these (admittedly if, though it’s unlikely, it is a much longer string of numbers Old Nick inputs, ten, say, then there are 3.6 million combinations — a substantial number, but it wouldn’t take you seven years to crack it). When she does devise a plan, it’s so nutso that I was certain we were meant to see what Ma couldn’t, that it was an unworkable scheme scraped together by a mind close to snapping. Instead, extraordinarily, she wraps Jack in a rug, makes him lie very still, and tells Old Nick the boy is dead and he must be buried far away without Old Nick looking at the body. It’s very tedious when characters who’ve been set out as clever or cunning suddenly develop stupidity purely to serve the plot, and that’s what happens here: against all sense, Old Nick agrees not to inspect Jack’s supposed corpse and drives off with him to dump the body, whereupon Jack escapes and al, ultimately, is well. This does lend the book a badly-needed sense of tension or excitement — it’s otherwise oddly devoid of peril, being banal more often than chilling — but is so ludicrous that it really throws the whole book off-beam.

I’ve written more than I intended to about Room, which I started out wanting to dislike, grudgingly admired for its worldbuilding, Jack’s voice, and the unwavering internal veracity of the Room universe, then grew irritated by, speeding through the second half wondering whether this was actually going anywhere. Curiously, the psychological angle is neglected — it stops ringing true as soon as Jack and Ma escape — and what remains is a slightly novel twist on the ‘modern life is weird’ novel where a series of lesser or greater insights and observations is bundled together under the guise of the book being ‘about’ something (this remains fiction, if we can draw the distinction, rather than literature, for its free-ranging gathering of stuff without much attempt to push any sort of thesis, and in prose that lacks any real poetry). Overall then? Room for improvement, of course.

Edit: It struck me I should mention what else I’d been reading each week, other contenders for the ’52 Books’ thing. Thus, in week one (and even including the slightly dubious TV tie-in):

F. Scott Fitzgerald The Last Tycoon (Penguin Classics)

Peter Handke Short Letter, Long Farewell (New York Review)

Oli Smith Doctor Who: Nuclear Time (BBC Books)

 

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