Boy’s voice seems trapped in ‘Room’

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - DAVID L. ULIN BOOK CRITIC

The more you know about Emma Donoghue’s ninth novel, “Room,” the harder it is to as­sess.

That’s a tricky is­sue, since “Room” is one of the hot books of the moment: short­listed for the Man Booker Prize, with cov­er­age ev­ery­where. If you’ve heard about it, you know the setup: The novel is nar­rated by a 5year-old boy named Jack, who was born and has spent his en­tire life in a room (a for­ti­fied gar­den shed, re­ally) with his mother, im­pris­oned by the man who kid­napped her seven years be­fore.

For Ma, life in Room — which is what Jack calls their zone of con­tain­ment — is an on­go­ing tor­ment, mit­i­gated only by the de­sire to pro­tect her son. For Jack, the sit­u­a­tion is some­what dif­fer­ent, since Room is the only world

he’s ever known. Each is the other’s one con­nec­tion to what we might call nor­mal life. “Women aren’t real like Ma is,” Jack ex­plains early in the novel, “and girls and boys not ei­ther.”

These are the ba­sics, which we learn in the first 30 or 40 pages of the book. Still, to have even that small bit of in­for­ma­tion ir­re­vo­ca­bly al­ters how we en­gage with the work.

The con­ceit of “Room,” af­ter all, is to un­fold slowly, piece by piece. This is one rea­son to have a child nar­rate the novel: to con­nect us with a mind of which we are not com­pletely cer­tain, so that we need to de­code the voice and the story it tells.

Once we know the frame­work, we lose a kind of pu­rity, an un­fet­tered re­la­tion­ship with the text. That’s not Donoghue’s fault, but it does make for an in­ad­ver­tent irony, in which the best way to read “Room” may be in a Room of the imag­i­na­tion, a lit­er­ary iso­la­tion cham­ber, if you will.

As to why this is im­por­tant, “Room” de­pends en­tirely on voice to be suc­cess­ful, and voice is a frag­ile thing. Push too far in one di­rec­tion and it be­comes a gim­mick, too far in the other and it grows ob­scure.

Of course, it is a gim­mick to have a 5-year-old nar­rate a novel, just as it was for Alice Se­bold to write “The Lovely Bones” from the per­spec­tive of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped and killed. And yet, like Se­bold, Donoghue has other as­pi­ra­tions than merely to see if she can pull it off.

Shades of Du­gard

Ap­par­ently in­spired by the ex­pe­ri­ences of Elis­a­beth Fritzl and Jaycee Du­gard — both of whom were held for many years by cap­tors (in Fritzl’s case, her fa­ther) by whom they bore chil­dren — she has said that to frame this story through a mother’s eyes “would be too ob­vi­ously sad.”

With Jack, how­ever, the ques­tion of con­fine­ment be­comes more nu­anced, since he has no ex­pe­ri­ence of “Out­side.” Early in the novel, Ma tries to ex­plain; “There’s more things on earth than you ever dreamed about,” she says. “That’s ridicu­lous,” Jack thinks, “Ma was never in Out­side.” It’s a telling moment, both be­cause of the lim­its of the boy’s imag­i­na­tion and the pre­co­cious­ness of his think­ing, his abil­ity to con­cep­tu­al­ize the world (such as it is) around him and give it an in­ter­pre­ta­tion all his own.

Such a dou­ble vi­sion is es­sen­tial to Donoghue’s in­ten­tions, but it doesn’t al­ways work. At times, we’re right with Jack, as when he notes that “[i]n Room me and Ma had time for ev­ery­thing. I guess the time gets spread very thin like but­ter over all the world … so there’s only a lit­tle smear of time on each place, then ev­ery­one has to hurry on to the next bit.” This ob­ser­va­tion comes late in the book, af­ter he has learned more about Out­side, but what makes it res­o­nant is that it draws us, al­most with­out think­ing, into both his lan­guage and his point of view.

Not so ef­fec­tive are those mo­ments when he is less in his head, more di­rectly en­gaged with his en­vi­ron­ment, es­pe­cially the two ma­jor plot turns, com­ing about a third and two-thirds of the way through the novel, in which his bond with Ma is tested and he must (lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively) strike out on his own.

I’m be­ing pur­posely vague be­cause I don’t want to give away more of the story than is nec­es­sary; here too there is an el­e­ment of sur­prise, of dis­cov­ery, meant to al­ter how we think of not just the nar­ra­tive but also Jack him­self.

Un­even pace

Still, in both big shifts — and they are big shifts — things un­fold too quickly, with­out suf­fi­cient con­text, in­con­sis­tent with how the char­ac­ters be­have.

“We’re like peo­ple in a book, and he won’t let any­body else read it,” Ma of­fers, in a brief metafic­tional aside. But even as Jack con­sid­ers “how … peo­ple in a book es­cape from it,” we won­der at his abil­ity to make sense of ev­ery­thing.

To mit­i­gate that, per­haps, Donoghue re­peat­edly cites chil­dren’s sto­ries — pri­mar­ily “Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” both of which echo the novel in cer­tain ways.

Where are Jack and Ma, af­ter all, if not down the rab­bit hole, or un­der the sway of a capri­cious gi­ant, who feeds on their fear?

Yet for all that Jack (in the case of “Room,” as well as the beanstalk) tries to help his mother, the broader as­so­ci­a­tions get a lit­tle tangled, es­pe­cially when it comes to Alice, who was both a wise child and, like Ma, from a dif­fer­ent place. “I’m like Alice,” Ma tells Jack. “…I’m from some­where else, like her.”

Clearly, Donoghue means to dra­ma­tize the back story of ev­ery fairy tale: the cau­tion­ary saga, the dark­ness at the cen­ter of the world. But if “Room” vividly evokes these dangers, it is, in the end, too limited in its point of view.

“When I was a lit­tle kid, I thought like a lit­tle kid,” Jack tells us, “but now I’m five I know ev­ery­thing.” Maybe so, but that’s a tall or­der for any 5-year-old, and even more for one who has spent his life within the walls of Room.

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