Room – Emma Donoghue

20 March 2011
First third: Chapters 1, 2 and part of 3
Two years ago I read the 1962 novel Woman of the Dunes by Japanese author Kobo Abe. 50 pages into it I was hoping that, basically, I hadn’t got all there was to get out of Abe’s story of two people kept imprisoned in a tiny house at the bottom of a hole in the sand-dunes. It became clear that Abe has an existentialist agenda going, to do with the human condition in the middle of the 20th Century. He was a great fan of Samuel Beckett, and his novel owes a lot to several of Beckett’s dramas, particularly Happy Days (1961), centred on a woman trapped in sand with a man next to her.

You can see where I’m going with this. Room is not the same as Beckett’s play or Abe’s novel but, beyond merely wondering what might happen next – and plenty of things have already happened – a reader is bound to wonder if there’s more to it than a simple ‘What if…?’ (What if you were the child born to a woman secretly imprisoned by a nutter? What would your view of the world be? How would you use language?) Does Donoghue have another agenda? If Jack, the five-year-old, is trapped inside a room with no view of the outside, well, aren’t we all trapped inside Plato’s cave?

I’m asking these questions to stop becoming bored. Donoghue is obviously nicely brought-up because, like ‘Ma’, she does her best to keep the awful environment bearable for us. It’s not supposed to be too interesting, obviously, but in the first chapter there’s a birthday and – gasp – a cake. In the second, over the course of a few days, Donoghue allows Jack to have more first-time experiences than in his whole lifetime so far. I’ll come back to those, but the interesting one is Ma’s decision to tell him that the world of television, which she has pretended until now is all imaginary, is real. This lets Donoghue rub our noses in a whole can of worms. I’m not sure yet that it’s any more interesting than the can of cold beans Jack is forced to eat on one of the occasional days when Ma is too depressed to get up.

At the point I’ve reached, Donoghue has had Ma explaining to Jack everything about their imprisonment. There have already been enough clues for us to piece together the old story of the evil kidnapper – is it Donghue’s joke as much as Ma’s that they call him Old Nick? – and the reinforced, escape-proof room he’s imprisoned them in. He comes in most nights for sex, supplies them with the bare minimum of food and clothing so long as she asks nicely…. I’ve just read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it was like being back inside that story of, to give it its Swedish title, men who hate women. Are we nearly there yet?

No, we aren’t. But there are mildly interesting things to keep us mildly interested. There’s Jack’s language, spoken (or voice-overed, or whatever) in a continuous present designed to lock us into the same four walls as the characters. His English is not quite perfect: objects are masculine or feminine, and it’s no surprise that Rug – all nouns are proper names in this world – is ‘she’ whilst Jeep is ‘he’. Every day he ‘has some’: we can guess at the maternal need that has kept Ma breastfeeding him so long. There are their games and stories: Ma really does try to make his life bearable. But there are also the appalling compromises, like the way Jack is always hidden away in Wardrobe whenever the beep beep beep of the lock announces Old Nick’s arrival. In fact, this is Ma’s idea: whenever the man begins to show any interest in the boy – as he begins to do in the second chapter – she pulls him on to the bed so Jack can count the squeaks until they stop.

And, suddenly, there’s some plot. Ma has let it slip that Jack is now five, and the man is interested – maybe he can meet him properly? (Cue scene of hasty dragging on to bed.) A day or two later there’s a present: the toy Jeep. If we want to, we can start wondering about the need for more than female company in the life of a growing boy. Old Nick himself suggests it, but what does he know? He’s just a monster, isn’t he? Well? Anyway, the Jeep moves the plot along when Ma puts it on the shelf above the bed and leaves Jack with the remote. What’s a boy going to do? He does it, and it crashes on to the man. He thinks he’s being attacked, nearly strangles Ma and takes against the way she pleads for Jack to be allowed into the outside world. He cuts off supplies and heating – it’s early April, so it gets cold – for some days.

Suddenly this woman who, aside from one attempt to bop the nasty man over the head with a chair, has been passive for something like eight years is galvanised. The part of Chapter 3 that I’ve read – it’s ominously subtitled ‘Dying’ – involves a cunning plan: why not get Jack to fake a fever, get the man to take him to hospital, where Jack can… etc. It doesn’t work – and Ma tells Jack that she never thought it would. So now we’re into more philosophy: Jack is mortified that his mother could have told him a lie – it was never a workable plan – and yet pretend to him that it was real. According to the cast-iron moral code she’s inculcated in him so far… etc. He’s very confused about it.

Where’s it going? Is there going to be a plot, with this being the story of how, through sheer guts and ingenuity, they are bound to escape? Or is it going to continue with its light dusting of philosophy, ending with a different kind of inevitability when neither of them ever get out? Dunno. (And I don’t know how bothered I am.)

27 March
To the end of Chapter 3
They’re out. The end – or it would be if we were a lot further than half-way through the book. Ma has told Jack that pretending to be sick was only Plan A. Plan B is to pretend to be dead, get wrapped up in the rug – sorry, in Rug – then get nasty Nick to take you to the outside and escape. It works – a plot development that struck me as preposterous. Jack’s memories of stopping at junctions and sharp turns are enough to let the police get an approximate fix on the streets where Room might be; his garbled explanations about Skylight and the fact that Room isn’t in a house, it’s in a yard – good job Ma completed this bit of his education earlier in the week – plus the helpful rescuer’s memory of the first part of the licence plate, bring them to the very house. Hello Ma. Hello Jack, you did it.

It’s better than I’m making it sound. There’s real tension as they put the plan into action, and Donoghue does a pretty good job of conveying Jack’s stream-of-consciousness experience of the big world of Outside. I’m being a bit sarcastic because it’s all over so quickly – the tension of the continuous present-tense narrative lasts a very few pages – and it’s so easy: sheer guts and ingenuity win the day, which was always a possibility. (As I suggested some time back – clever me.)

So where to now? The next quarter of the novel is devoted to a chapter called ‘After’, which could cover anything at all: Jack’s difficulties in adapting to the big world outside following the five years’ extension to the normal nine months spent in the womb; Ma’s difficulties, having been incarcerated since the age of 19; the pursuit and punishment of Old Nick – and the slow realisation that, after all, he is the boy’s father… but Jack has already been wanting to go back to Room and Bed, and I wonder if the rest of the novel charts his slow search for the happiness he found there. Who knows? Time to make a start.

30 March
Chapter 4 – After
I’ve just re-read the final paragraph of what I wrote before reading this chapter. My speculations about what might be covered seem to match up with what Donoghue really does decide to cover, and this might account for my disappointment. This whole novel is based on a series of ‘What ifs’. Donoghue has set herself the task of imagining her way into situations, as though to answer genuine, practical questions of how her characters would be able to live. So at one level, from the very beginning, it’s been realistic almost to the point of literal-mindedness. This is fine while they are inside Room, because it doesn’t prohibit the kind of metaphorical speculations that add a dimension to any reading of it. Is their experience a metaphor of life and the limited nature of our understanding of reality? Or of a child’s developing sense of the world outside itself? Or… whatever. And, because we don’t know whether they will stay there forever, there are existential speculations to be made about – gulp – the whole meaning of life.

But that part comes to an end. My disappointment began with Donoghue’s decision to make the escape implausibly easy, as though to make it clear that she wants that bit of business to be over as quickly as she can politely make it. It continues with ‘After’, almost all of it set in the clinic where they are taken. Donoghue’s new challenge to herself is to make a stab at describing what it would be like for a five-year-old who has always thought the world ‘was eleven feet by eleven’, as one interviewer puts it, to come to terms with the big Outside. Plausible things happen. People think he’s a girl because of his delicacy and long hair. He can’t manage stairs, is massively disoriented by the absence of walls and ceiling, has to come to terms with conversations in which he is not always the one being addressed…. There are a lot of others.

It’s a bit interesting – but why does almost every sentence seem like an exercise in creative writing? In particular there’s that one I used to do with students in which you read Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ and then imagine what it would really be like to see things for the first time, things that you might have heard of but really know nothing about. Donoghue wants us to be persuaded that it really would be like this, and… and what? I found myself thinking, yes, I suppose that sort of thing might happen or, yes, he might behave just like that. But it all becomes so literal-minded I began to wish I was reading a true account rather than the speculations of a novelist.

Anyway, near the end of this chapter that takes up the third quarter of the novel, Donoghue appears to decide to shake things up a bit. As Jack is just beginning to come to terms with Outside, his mother decidedly isn’t. They’ve been out for not quite a week when she bows to pressure from her lawyer – Just think of Jack’s college fees! – to face an on-the-sofa-style television interviewer. The interview makes plain what we already suspect: she hates the world she’s been kept from for seven years: its brashness, its obsession with celebrity and this week’s human interest story, its commercialism…. At other times, she’s having difficulties adapting to her family. And it’s mutual: her father can only bring himself to look at Jack when she gives him an ultimatum.

Small wonder that next day, when they are supposed to be going on their first proper trip with Ma’s brother and niece, that Jack finds her Gone. This is their word for her days of deep depression – like when Jack had to eat the cold beans alone – and Jack goes without her. It’s a disaster: when he sees a book that’s familiar to him from Room and puts it into his bag – he still doesn’t understand about the multiplicity of things in the world – he makes a terrible scene when the shop assistant demands it back…. But that’s just plot. When he gets back to room Number 7 – inevitably, it’s become their little oasis in a confusing world – Ma’s taken an overdose. If she survives – I’m not terribly bothered either way, because her action has Plot Device written all over it – maybe, as Jack takes more and more confident strides into Outside, she will decide to become a hermit. Maybe she’ll go back and live in Room on her own. (I don’t really believe this.)

31 March
To the end: Chapter 5 – Living
Ma’s suicide attempt, or cry for help (though nobody calls it that), or whatever it is means that Jack’s Grandma takes over. Donoghue does novelistic things to make her a fully rounded character, like she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, tries to be understanding about what Jack’s going through, but isn’t terribly imaginative… etc. Her second husband, Steppa – Jack is impressed that he can make the same kind of word-sandwiches that he and Ma have always done – is understated and good at bringing Jack out of himself. So that’s all right. Not massively interesting – this feels like another of Donoghue’s exercises in imagining herself into a situation – but all right.

The story kind of mooches along as it has done ever since their escape. Plausible stuff happens, as Jack becomes less introverted and reaches the sort of epiphanies we’d expect, such as the realisation that in Room he thought he knew everything, but Outside is showing him just how little he does know. In other words… in other words what? He’s an Everyman or, at least, an Everykid: the circumstances of his first five years haven’t shut him down, they’ve somehow made him wide open to the possibilities the world offers. All his life, his mother has been the fount of all knowledge for him. But he begins to discover that she doesn’t know everything. When he challenges her later – because, reader, she isn’t dead – all she can do is admit it and say that she did her best on meagre resources.

And Jack is all right with this. He’s all right with everything, once he’s got used to them. The beach isn’t at all like Ma had described it, but Donoghue takes us inside his first experience of the damp grittiness of sand underfoot and we know he’s discovering how to feel for himself. Later, he’s all right when Ma says there’s to be no more breastfeeding. And he’s all right when they go and see Room for the last time, saying goodbye in that kind of well-adjusted way he’s developed. (Earlier, he kissed her breasts goodbye, one by one.) I don’t believe any of it. Donoghue has kept a careful track of time since the very start, so we’re aware that he’s only known that any of this exists for about a month. And yet he’s already comfortable with other children, with going to different places, with more or less anything. Yeh, sure.

But, just in case we’re beginning to think that Donoghue has set aside the philosophical questions, Jack just happens upon an academic discussion of his case as he channel-hops on Grandma’s tv. One of the talking heads suggests that we are all Jack. Ok. Another – or is it the same one? – describes his experience as an embodiment of the idea of Plato’s Cave. (Donoghue makes sure we get the point by quoting the relevant passage in one of a series of Afterwords.) She’s trying to have it both ways: she wants her novel to be plausible and even realistic, but she wants it to have philosophical clout as well. So she brings in these academics to nudge us in the right direction. It’s all too bloody obvious.

I’m doing that thing I often do with novels: wishing it was something different from what it is. It’s in two halves that don’t fit together at all for me, and almost everything of interest comes to an end once Donoghue gets her two characters away from the mind-boggling weirdness of the room and into the step-by-step – by bloody step – imperatives of survival in a world that readers will recognise. Sure, we’ve still got Jack’s voice, and I still think that it’s the best thing in the book. But, in her hands, his language can’t express for us the unimaginable turning inside-out he’s having to live through. It’s quirky, and often charming, but it doesn’t reset our perceptions of ordinary reality.

And what is it with adult fiction written in the voices of precocious boys? Vernon God Little, alternating between childish delusions of how things work and implausibly sophisticated insights; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Strange Incident of the Dog in the Night-time…. All of them have something of Jack’s idiot savant about them. And let’s not forget the granddaddy of them all, about which Ernest Hemingway stated that ‘all modern American literature comes from one book … called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’ And yes, I know Room isn’t American. But it nearly is.

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One Response to Room – Emma Donoghue

  1. wingedseraphsofheaven says:

    Hi omg I saw your comment on reddit and I love this review and this insight. Thanks so much for the post, I love to hear other people’s thoughts wow omg!

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