February 10, 2016
Three Novels That Knocked Me Out
Posted on Nov 12, 2010
“Room” by Emma Donoghue
In this astonishing novel, again we have a prison, an adult, and a child who is growing up within it. And again we have a tale of human connection—but this time completely from the boy’s point of view. That changes everything.
The boy, 5-year-old Jack, lives in a fortified “Room” with his 26-year-old mother, known only as “Ma” (since we only have Jack’s perspective). She has been held there for seven years by her captor, who fathered Jack. The boy was born in Room and has never been outside.
Jack has been pretty happy there. He has Ma, and she has built a rich, personable world for him out of Room. There are Rug, Rocker, Bed, Table, Meltedly Spoon (the white plastic handle melted from a hot stove), and three “masterpieces” (prints of Picasso, Monet, Da Vinci) tacked on Wall. They came in cereal boxes. For “Phys Ed” they move furniture to play Track, “around Bed from Wardrobe to Lamp.” Most of the objects are named like this and constitute the kind of world that any child first creates.
By Cormac McCarthy
Vintage, 304 pages
The Lizard Cage
By Karen Connelly
Spiegel & Grau, 464 pages
Room: A Novel
By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company, 336 pages
Room feels larger than 11 feet square—I was surprised when I learned it was that small—because Jack experiences it as the totality of life. Donoghue maintains Jack’s point of view flawlessly. Sometimes it’s mysterious at first; for instance, he refers often to “having some,” which is unidentified but emerges as breastfeeding. “Left” is creamier than “Right.”
Most nights, Jack sleeps in a small Wardrobe while their captor enters to rape his mother—or so we ascertain from Jack’s attempts to distract himself if he’s still awake in Wardrobe and able to hear. Jack has dubbed the man “Old Nick” after the story of Santa Claus: “Mostly she calls him just him, I didn’t even know the name for him till I saw a cartoon about a guy that comes in the night called Old Nick. … When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it’s 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops. I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t count, because I always do.”
Ma knows, of course, that as Jack grows up, Room will be too small. Already trouble is brewing. Jack is fiercely protective of Ma, and one night he tries to tackle Old Nick. In punishment, Old Nick cuts their power and stops delivering food. Days pass, colder and hungrier. There’s no end in sight. Ma says he had told her what he’d do if she ever tried to harm him: “he’d go away and I’d get hungrier and hungrier till I died.”
During this time Ma dares to try to tell Jack about “Outside.” Jack thinks he knows about it: Outside is the images he sees dancing in the box that’s TV. When Ma insists, “What we see on TV is … it’s pictures of real things,” Jack doesn’t believe her at first. He struggles with the concept: “How can TV be pictures of real things? … Ma says they’re actual, but how can they be when they’re so flat?” Soon, though, the spell begins to break. Jack realizes that he’s inside, that Door keeps them in, and that Ma wants to get out.
The central plot question is, of course, whether Ma and Jack will make it to Outside. The emotional question is what will happen to Jack if they do. What they have in Room is continual closeness. How about in Outside?
Let me say only that at a point halfway through the novel I was skating over the pages so fast, dying to know what would happen, that I think I skipped every three words. And the second half of the book offers some trenchant comments about the news media and our consumer culture.
This novel demonstrates what a novel (short stories too) can do that no other fictional art can, including plays and films. Staged drama inevitably includes the presence of an audience, the watcher. There’s a distance between us and the action, even as we get caught up in it. Most films take the camera’s point of view as the baseline perspective, then shift in and out of characters’ POVs, which are necessarily only seen or heard. Written language is so non-sensuous—it’s no more than marks on a surface—that it almost seems to bypass the aggregate of senses that we call our self. It mainlines deeper than that, into the mind behind the senses, into the perceiver, the meaning-maker, the creator of realities. Thus when we enter the point of view of a character in a piece of artful fiction (written so well as to not break the reader’s trance, to not show the seams), we become that character. We think, sense, speak and feel as that person. An amazing intimacy takes place in private, between each of us and the page. Farewell, boundaries. No wonder we love to read.
After dissolving these boundaries, some writers then give the whole thing another twist. They use dramatic irony: while the reader inhabits the character, the reader also knows more than the character does. In “Room” we are Jack, but we also know the tragedy of Jack’s situation and the dire possibilities. It’s this tension that drives the story and makes Jack’s voice so poignant.
Like a musician playing an instrument, fiction plays consciousness. Through this fictional art, these three novels evoked hope and beauty without denying the reality of human destructiveness. That’s dramatic irony of high order, and an extraordinary feat of literature. That’s ultimately why I think “The Road,” “The Lizard Cage” and “Room” knocked me out.
What do you think? What novels knocked you out, and why? Add your own comments and recommendations.
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