Yesterday’s post said that Emma Donoghue’s Room is brilliant. It is the next day and I am not recanting. Room is still brilliant piece of Literature. I even recommend it, to pretty much anyone.
Yesterday was somewhat ambiguous, I suppose. Today, if curious, or if you’ve read Room, I plan to be less so.
Part 2: L’s potentially spoiling rambling
Room is a haunting story of a five-year-old boy (Jack) born into an 11×11 foot room, his harrowing escape, and his introduction to Outside. It’s a story about a woman (Sharon) abducted and made to suffer for seven years, a mother (Ma) who loves her son and longs to be free, and their re-introduction into the Outside now too unfamiliar, or perhaps too achingly familiar. Room is a story about the world we live in, about individual family and villages, about intimacy and boundaries. It’s a story about names and identity, about what is real or unreal. It’s a story fraught with curiosities and discomfort. Room is a story about Proportion*.
A boy goes to sleep in Wardrobe and wakes in Bed, no longer four but now five. The circumstances of his existence unfold before him as necessity warrants. He is aging, his mind too big for the world constructed about him. Then there is the very real physical threat, of a captor who may not be able to keep them long—yep, what is a guy to do when he is now 6 months unemployed, what expense does one cut first? I may sound flippant, but Donoghue pays finite attention to the human condition and the uncomfortable possibilities in Room, saturating the narrative in a sense of the Real, even as it questions what is Real.
While Jack outlines what he believes to be real, while he resides in a five-year-old’s perspective, the reader is not limited by their first person narrator. The voice we hear isn’t the sound, and what he sees isn’t the only thing observed. The reader captures inferences, fuller meanings in otherwise meaningless words, interpreting actions and looks that Jack needn’t register. The narrative style is quite beautiful this way, perfect for engaging critical thought in the reader—which is completely necessary as the story progresses. You find yourself in a constant state of measuring, weighing, considering, criticizing…if Room doesn’t alienate, it engages contemplation fully…consciously or no.
Room is split into 5 parts (a fitting number in context of Jack): Presents, Unlying, Dying, After, Living. It wasn’t until ‘Unlying’ that I was dedicated to the story. At ‘Dying’ I didn’t want to put the book down. I had to wait for ‘Living’ until after the daughter was put to bed.
While I was curious with questions with regards to the premise, I was tormented by the idea that the whole book could mean the two would be kept in Room. They don’t and the escape and rescue is heart-pounding. ‘After’ and ‘Living’ hold the fascination of the Reader as Donoghue explores the “what comes after.”
The mother (Ma) is glad to be free; the son misses the only home he’s ever known. She wants greater independence and he clings as tightly as ever to the only steady hold on reality that he has—her. You feel sympathy for both sides. Even as the Reader is no longer trapped in Room with them, they are trapped in Room with them. The weight of them slow the pace of the story, the pain of the conflict unrelenting. Jack may not be cute enough, funny enough for some, eliciting anger instead.
I appreciate that Donoghue addresses multiple questions and perspectives and that she does so as cleverly as she does. Jack is five and his getting tired of hearing adult conversations is believable, still, he manages to mind enough, to overheard plenty of key words that encapsulate larger ideas (“reintegration and self-blame” 209). It doesn’t hurt that a game played in Room called Parrot prepares the Reader for Jack’s ability to listen closely and integrate large words into his vocabulary.
The veracity of the story falters a bit for me when Ma gave into Jack’s insistence that he stay with her, go with her down to where she would be interviewed for television (even out of guilt of accidently harming him). Sure it was necessary to for Jack to be present so that the interview could be overheard… And yet Ma is a decision making entity that demands no one, not even the Reader should take from her.
Or perhaps what falters most heavily is the image of Ma, as it is remembered that Ma is also the rarely named young woman Sharon. That she was someone else before Room, and should become something else after Room. She is human, and some of her decisions were bound to be flawed, limited within the scope of imagining, of knowledge (general or otherwise).
Donoghue plays coy toward the beginning of the story, reminding me of the Margaret Atwood’s gift for showing more than saying, creating tension with the mundane, cigarette burns before pulling out the blow-torch. As the story progresses, subtleties are sloughed off. The tension turns on the Reader. Once Ma and Jack are freed from their Room into which we are given view. It is their turn to observe the world.
The interest in the details of the captivity convicts the reader, whether with voyeuristic intensity or not (which for me is the not side of the argument). Curiosity on how two would survive, manage their time, give birth to the child, protect the child, etc. is what the Reader has been indulging in, isn’t it? Now the outsiders looking on take a turn and the lighting is not flattering. The media are rabid and unfeeling—but they are only feeding an equally rabid and inconsiderate audience. The lawyer is both protective and, well, not. Even the clinic/doctor’s philanthropy is to further his own work as well: “as I was lucky enough to be the admitting psychiatrist on duty last night—“ “Lucky?” she says. “Poor word choice.” He does a sort of grin. “I’m going to be working with you both for the moment—“ (182).
It is to Room’s credit that the reader is not %100 percent sure where the Author’s sympathies lie. Well, there is care for Jack, the narrator. I suppose he is first priority, but he is five and for all his clever observances, he is still a child and prone to childish action. Ma is on a pedestal, as she should be in the narrator’s mind. And while it is necessary for the reader to read around the narrator’s biased emotions, even Ma begins to slip further in the son’s eye. She does stupid things (nearly fatal) and she smells different. Ma has never had to be more than her one self. In Room she becomes two, and then three, but they were still in Room and the dependence is unavoidable. Outside the greater variables create greater complications creating even greater conflict, but the conflict is no less claustrophobic. Then there are the questions other’s think/know to ask—thus the important Television Interview.
The Inquiring minds pry open wounds wanting to heal, to be forgotten. The earlier conversation on celebrity resurfaces. Ever the conversation on privacy—and what is public domain. Common courtesy and legal documents do not seem to matter.
The Interview is also a forum for the Questions to be explored, insight into Ma’s motivations/actions. She is a complicated character. And it is a moment to appreciate the author’s temerity.
Ma/Sharon: “I mean, of course when I woke up in that shed, I thought nobody’d ever had it as bad as me. But the thing is, slavery’s not a new invention. And solitary confinement—did you know, in America we’ve got more than twenty-five thousand prisoners in isolation cells? Some of them for more than twenty years. […] As for kids—there’s places where babies lie in orphanages five to a cot with pacifiers taped into their mouths, kids getting raped by Daddy every night, kids in prisons, whatever, making carpets till they go blind—“ (235-6).
There is no subtlety here. And a question is there: Why are we not curious about these stories? Why do we not demand air time and positive action in those cases? There is little subtlety and sore toes continue to be trod upon.
Donoghue uses every opportunity, every interaction to closely weave this story. I am curious how Room was constructed, how many rewrites. It is a very snug story leaving no lesson unused or unlearned. What lives in Room bleeds to the Outside, creating necessary connections, and effectively illustrating how cramming the largeness of the world into the 11×11 foot space of Room is a painful brain-sickening process.
Bringing us back to how Donoghue returns the curious gaze of the Reader back on themselves. Jack’s biting observations:
In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa don’t have jobs, so I don’t know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there’s only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.
Also everywhere I ‘m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear. (287)
Sometimes the observations, the provoked thoughts, can be exhausting in the way it is layered into the story. While the novel compels the reader to move forward, making the effort easy on your time, it isn’t light reading, not if you are driven to think about the things Room wants to talk about.
Donoghue is armed with questions, considering the angles of her story, the problem of a child born in Room, and his mother. One is, in response to the question of ‘what comes after escape?’ is spatial consequences? There is the physical problem of judging clearances when you haven’t needed to practice, or the idea that space means greater physical separation from another human or recently anthropomorphized objects. There is also the question of acceptable behaviors when suddenly there is an outside and there are other people. There is a society that is now greater than two, and a different spatial interaction is required.
Room wants to talk about what is appropriate, what makes us uncomfortable, societally? What is acceptable? No moment is spared.
Jack has his first easy interaction with a strange kid at the Library. They are playing trains, while the man with Walker is nearby, with a parental eye on him. “Another man comes in and kisses the first one and then Walker. “Say bye-bye to your friend,” he tells him.
Is that me?
“Bye-bye.” Walker flaps his hand up and down.
I think I’ll give him a hug. [a rare desire for Jack.] I do it too fast and knock him down , he bangs on the train table and cries.
“I’m so sorry,” Grandma keeps saying, “my grandson doesn’t –he’s learning about boundaries—“
“No harm done,” says the first man. They go off with the little boy doing one two three whee swinging between them, he’s not crying anymore. Grandma watches them, she’s looking confused. (288)
Why does Grandma “look confused?” is the second observation.
The continual: A five-year-old’s morning erection, his still being breast fed, his using the phrase “I want to have some” and remarking how the left breast is his favorite, its milk is creamier (really, I was about done with hearing about that particular observation). Donoghue is provoking societal discomfort. Room isn’t interested in being polite, being polite was what Ma/Sharon was doing in Room,
“Yeah, but for me, see, Jack was everything. I was alive again, I mattered. So after that I was polite.”
“Polite? Oh, you mean with—“
“It was all about keeping Jack safe.”
“Was it agonizingly hard to be, as you put it, polite?”
Ma shakes her head. “I did it on autopilot, you know Stepford Wife.” (233)
Donoghue keeps pace with the story, holding the criticisms until later, provoking ideas. Ma is the perfect time bomb, the perfect voice, [the woman]: “You breastfed him. In fact, this may startle some of our viewers, I understand you still do?” Ma laughs. The woman stares at her. “In this whole story, that’s the shocking detail?” (233).
Donoghue is deliberate. Room is evidence of a well-thought out, beautifully constructed piece. Room is blatantly interested in why some things are appropriate and other things are not. Why can we talk about this on television and not this. What intimate interactions are natural/unnatural; and in what circumstances?
The only statement Room is certain of is that we cage people in. We perhaps cage too many things, and a dialog is necessary. The use of a child to see the world, to wonder at it, is a brilliant perspective to take—because things have to be explained, and in the explanation flaws have the potential to be exposed, or the rightness of it is reinforced. And with Jack, we are seeing things obliquely and a more comfortable position from which to watch.
The constant attention to Real vs Unreal in Room is an unavoidable concern that holds hand with gauging what is appropriate. It also reinforces Room and its preoccupation with Proportion.
Bunnies are TV but carrots are real, I like their loudness. […] mountains are too big to be real, I saw one in TV that has a woman hanging on it by ropes. Women aren’t real like Ma is, and girls and boys not either. Men aren’t real except Old Nick, and I’m not actually sure i f he’s real for real. Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he’s not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats. Maybe door makes him up with a beep beep and the air changes. I think Ma doesn’t like to talk about him in case he gets realer. (18)
Ma discusses the necessity of having Jack continually consider anything Outside to not be real (234). You can’t disagree, and the tension of having to change course when escape suddenly seems possible is wrenching. Also, this fits into the sense that Jack is experiencing the Outside as if he were an infant/toddler. Then there is the desire to deny Old Nick’s existence.
The ambiguity of titles/nicknames as Names. Old Nick is a name Jack gave him because two hims would be difficult (as illustrated later in the story). We do not learn Ma’s given name until page 214. Room is seen as a shed, later. Jack is the only Jack until there are suddenly thousands more. Room’s Bed is specific, as is Rug, but the names are insufficient in their sudden ubiquity, in their sudden mass representation. Names are another way Donoghue plays with the size of things, and our grasp of the concepts human and symbol and living, real or imagined.
Jack is at a playground with his maternal grandmother and she points out a fireman’s pole.
“Oh, yeah, I saw that in TV. But why they live here?”
“Oh, it isn’t one of their real poles, just a play one.”
When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I’m in Outside but it turns out lots of it isn’t real at all. (277)
Room had to have an ending. I cannot confidently say that the reader has every hope of Jack’s resilience as the story moves closer to novel’s end. The book doesn’t provide Jack with seamless transitions; or even paints him as easily adjusted. The ending feels—tentative? It is a good ending. The image used, the crater, recalls their freedom from Room, its confines, limitations, horrors. Ma and Jack are survivors.
I like that the ending wasn’t quaint, and yet it was satisfying. Primarily, I was ready to get away from Room, to say good-bye to it. And it was good to see Sharon back in her role as Ma, doing the hardest things (facing demons) for the sake of her son. And the hope is there, in the realizations Jack comes to, comparing what was real to what is real having since left Room and been given greater perspective. Perhaps the Readers of Room were provided the same after having since left it.
Still, I am wondering how altering Room will be. Seems the fascination is in whether Donoghue pulls off the narrative choice; and whether Donoghue’s logic holds. Not unimportant interests or questions. Just a noticeable track (in which I think Donoghue succeeds). However, Room isn’t just an examination of whether Emma Donoghue is a talented writer deserving recognition as story teller. Room has questions of its own, and a critical eye waiting to interrogate its Reader.
Not sure if you read Acknowledgments, you always should you know. I find them reassuring. “…for their suggestions about everything from child development to plot development. Above all, my brother-in-law Jeff Miles for his unnervingly insightful advice on the practicalities of Room.” If, during or after reading Room, you doubt what a five-year-old may actually be capable of in light what you or society considers appropriate you’ve just experienced an appreciative value of the book.
* I was suddenly driven to the think of the Modernist writers (esp. Virginia Woolf) and the wor Proportion came to mind. Proportion: Oxford English Dictionary definition. I believe all uses could be applied.
Proportion: noun. · a part , share, or number considered in comparative relation to a whole. · the relationship of one thing to another in terms of quantity, size, or number; the ratio. · (proportions) the comparative measurements or size of different parts of a whole. · (proportions) dimensions; size: the room, despite its ample proportions, seemed too small for him · the correct, attractive, or ideal relationship in size or shape between one thing and another or between the parts of a whole: perceptions of color, form , harmony, and proportion
verb [with object] formal: adjust or regulate (something) so that it has a particular or suitable relationship to something else.
** Michael Cunningham is quoted on the cover of the version I read as saying, “Potent, darkly beautiful, and revelatory.”
Room by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
321 pages (hardcover)
the book trailer
Emma Donoghue’s site.