Because I use the theme of childhood & Innocence / Experience in my freshman writing course, I’m always on the lookout for fiction dealing with those subjects. Emma Donoghue’s novel Room came up recently as a recommendation on Amazon, based, I think, on my purchasing history. I’d read a glowing review in the NY Times, so I ordered the book with the idea that it might work in my class. When it came I read the first twenty pages or so, then set it aside when I got busy grading, thinking that the story ran a serious risk of falling into an inevitable form of sentimentality, given the subject and the point of view.
The story involves a young woman kidnapped and used for sex by an anonymous man who keeps her locked in a garden shed behind his suburban house that he has converted into the self-contained Room of the novel’s title, which is in fact a very effective prison. The young woman is 19 when she is kidnapped and within a couple of years becomes pregnant and bears a son. The tricky and audacious thing about the novel is that it is told in the first-person point of view of this boy when he is five years old. There are plenty of novels in the voices of children, but five years old is pushing against the downward limit of verbal ability for a narrator; still, Donoghue manages the difficulties with a kind of intelligence and grace one wouldn’t think possible, given the narrative situation she has set up for herself.
The narrator’s name is Jack and he is surely a verbally gifted child, but not so gifted as to seem implausible even to a reader (such as me) skeptical of this particular technical choice. The story develops in such a way that Jack’s verbal gifts seem natural: he spends a great deal of time talking to his mother and reading his five books and they also play a game called Parrot in which they watch TV and then the mother hits the mute button, Jack’s task in this game being to parrot back the whole previous sentence he has just heard whether he understands the words or not. They then discuss the words and their meaning. This game is only mentioned once or twice, but in the huge silence that is their lives (the room is soundproofed) language takes on a nearly magical importance.
Because Jack has never seen the outside world except through television, he imagines that there is only one of each thing and that stories and TV are fantasies. He calls the bed Bed and the table Table, and so on for all the objects in Room. Each noun is a singular and proper noun. At night, when their captor — whom they call Old Nick — comes to rape his mother, Jack goes into a bed in the bottom of Wardrobe until Old Nick punches the numbers on the electronic lock and goes back to his house with its widescreen TV. The room is windowless except for a skylight high overhead and has chainlink fencing inside the walls, as Ma finds out long before she gives birth to Jack and acquires this name, also a proper and not a generic noun. The novel presents the reader with a space that is at once claustrophobic and entirely domestic. That claustrophobic environment begins to wear on the reader before long, but in one of the nifty technical sleights of hand Donoghue pulls off, the reader is also slowly let into Ma’s world through the device of having Jack report their conversations and actions.
Ma is clearly depressed and desperate but at the same time holding her sanity together for the sake of her son — and, too, with his innocent collaboration, Jack’s voice coming to represent in the reader’s imagination both the limits and the power of radical innocence. He becomes her reason for survival and ultimately her mode of escape. Inevitably, about a third of the way into the narrative, Jack’s fascination but nevertheless limited voice begins to sound tedious, but just as that begins to happen the plot of the novel advances toward a plan for getting away from their captor. Ma had tried to get away a couple of times before Jack was born, once smashing Old Nick over the head with the toilet seat, but since his birth has put all her energy into protecting him, even to the extent of being “polite” to Old Nick. Because the simple plot of the first half of the novel relies on suspense, I’m not going to include any of the details in this review; I will note that I was taken in by a subtle red herring so that the actual method of escape surprised me.
The commentary I’ve read on Room understandably focuses on the central characters’ captivity, but nearly half the novel is devoted to what happens after their escape and I’d argue that this part of the narrative is the emotional and imaginative heart of the novel. It is the central function of literature to allow us to imagine what cannot be directly said. We might revise Wittgenstein’s dictum that “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” to What we cannot speak about we must find a way to imagine. Literature — by which I mean language that aspires to the status of art — serves that necessity. To this end, what seemed at the beginning a technical liability in Room — a five-year-old’s point of view — turns out to be a strength: Jack is too young to philosophize or explain; Jack’s voice reports what happens to him and his mother and in doing so brings the reader into an imaginative connection with these characters and their situation that might otherwise be destroyed by sentimentality.
When I teach Lit and creative writing, I am often surprised by the vehemence with which some students defend specific examples of sentimentality and sentimentality itself as an appropriate expression of emotion, even after we have talked about the distortions of feeling it involves & the superficiality of emotion and psychological falsity that result from sentimental language. I have the sense that there is a connection between this defense of the sentimental and a parallel bit of unfocused belief — that only “direct experience” is completely real and that such experience is somehow unmediated by things like books or movies or songs, i.e., objects and processes of culture. The cultural, necessarily conceived narrowly, then becomes ontologically second rate. (Of course all experience is mediated by culture, but this is largely invisible.) As a consequence, the intellectual and emotional experiences we have as readers are demoted to entertainment and escapism, modes in which the sentimental is thought to be valid.
A novel like Room, though, demands to be read imaginatively, by which I mean that the reader takes his or her experiences inside the world of the novel as real, as ontologically equivalent to “direct experience.” There may be differences between one’s experience “out in the world” and experience “inside” the world of a novel, but they are phenomenological not ontological. It is much easier, of course, to relegate the imaginative to secondary status, for the imaginary makes rigorous demands upon the reader — demands that can be safely ignored only by treating the imagination as what Coleridge would call “fancy.” (Fantasy as a genre strikes me as the apotheosis of a broken and irresponsible conception of imagination.) A novel like Donoghue’s Room demands from the reader the same kind of attention demanded by friends, family, students, colleagues; that is, the reader who wishes to be a reader has an inescapable responsibility to the text that cannot be lightly put aside. A novel like Room reminds us that all texts are available to imaginative /theoretical reading, whether they are naive or self-conscious about their own demands upon imagination.