Room by Emma Donoghue

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. Continue reading

Wild Lives: Notes for an Essay

1. It is gratifying that whaling regulations have not been eased at the recent meeting of the international commission that oversees the “harvest” of marine mammals, but beyond that news & its egregious metaphor, I was fascinated by some of the information about cetaceans in this NY Times article; specifically, I was struck by the way the scientists quoted were defining personhood, if that’s the right term. Dolphins (& presumably whales) are interested in seeing themselves in a mirror, checking out parts of their bodies they can’t ordinarily see. The mirror test is presumed to to demonstrate self-consciousness, fair enough. My terriers will look at themselves in a mirror, but it’s hard to tell whether they see themselves or an image of another dog. They don’t behave as if they are seeing another dog, so perhaps they recognize themselves.  Birds will peck at their own image in a mirror & the behavior seems pretty complex. How about fish? I don’t know, but I know some fish are territorial & might react as if another fish were horning in on their territory. I’m not trying to find fault with the mirror test, just noting that it is the human observer who views the animal’s interaction with a mirror & makes a determination. We know what consciousness looks like, or personhood. This is more interesting to me than whether this or that animal reacts to a mirror in a certain way, as interesting as that is.

2. The vocalizations of cetaceans is often compared to music, or song, and somewhat less often (& less directly), to speech. They have tribal dialects, apparently, which suggests language & since they can both learn & teach what they have learned, it appears that it might be something we would recognize as a real language, not just a highly elaborate system of communication. And here we get back to the issue of self-recognition. Language, too, is a mirror. I’m far from expert, but in addition to their vocal communications, don’t at least some species of cetaceans produce & repeat long “symphonic” vocalizations and then work changes on them? If so, this would suggest a sense of the aesthetic in whales & dolphins, though perhaps it is only an elaborate kind of birdsong. [Need further information.]

3. Living in the country, Carole & I take delight in seeing & naming: birds (many species, including jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches, hawks, vultures, ducks, geese, several kinds of finches, bluebirds, thrushes. . .), turtles (painted, snapping), frogs & toads, beavers, skunks, porcupines, deer, and occasionally coyotes & bears. What is the source of our delight? Merely a privilege of the bourgeois, or something deeper?

4. Portrayals of damaged humans, usually children, in fact & fiction: Kasper Hauser, Victor (the Wild Child from 18 c. France; various accounts by Truffaut, T.C. Boyle, etc.), Malcolm (from Marisa Silver’s novel The God of War), Christopher (from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). By looking at what these damaged humans possess, as well as what they lack, we highlight the cluster of qualities that allow a person to create & recognize a self. And connected to these accounts, there is the much more abstract set of arguments in Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind that seem to suggest a special place in the universe for human consciousness. Not sure if I can accept the “fine tuning” of physical laws Robinson suggests (but does not assert), but that is not necessary to appreciate her devastating response to “parascientists” like Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and the other reductionists who believe that, because the brain is a physical organ, mind & consciousness are epiphenomena, easily dismissed as ontologically inferior the the various tissues and juices of the brain.

5. Mind as extension in the Cartesian sense. Richard P. Bentall’s Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature argues persuasively that “madness” is not one thing and is not separated by a bright line from other “normal” states of mind; in this vein, he sees mental complaints rather than a discrete set of mental illnesses that can be assigned a particular diagnosis. He also brings forward an impressive amount of evidence that strongly suggests mental illness is a bio-social phenomenon.

Further thoughts a couple of days later: 1. Yesterday evening I was watching Jett, our seven year old Jack Russell as he stood on the deck looking down the road toward the river. There were some kids swimming down there & the other two dogs had been barking in that direction, but Jett was focused, his mouth a little open, his nose moving to sense the air almost as a human would feel a piece of fabric to get the sense of it. The other two dogs were excited, but he was calm, completely self-possessed. I’ve watched all the dogs over the years of course & each has his/her ways of focusing on the world & at the same time being themselves. In fact those two things go together — focusing intently on the world and being an animal self. This goes beyond Santayana’s notion of “animal faith,” which is a kind of confidence that the world will be, perhaps roughly, supportive of our being. For the philosopher, “animal faith” is a common ground for animals & humans, something we humans share with animals but also then surpass in all the usually enumerated ways: reason, language, technology & so on.

2.Over the years I’ve had many encounters with animals that have gone beyond mere observation into something more profound and, I believe, reciprocal, though I don’t want to sentimentalize the notion of reciprocity– I understand that the heron I saw 25 years ago on an estuary near the Pacific “understood” our encounter in the same way I understood it, but the bird did look back at me and allowed me to come quite close & was clearly conscious of me. Wild animals are one thing & domesticated animals another. I freely admit to sentimentalizing our dogs, but I also spend a good deal of time just watching them, trying to understand something about the way they understand the world. Their sensory organs filter the world for them in a way different from mine, of course, but there is enough overlap — we’re all mammals – that we can make sense of each others’ sensory worlds. Also, we share a social world of complex personal interactions that allow us to communicate our sense of the world. And of course we observe each other in action and draw conclusions, seeing the world, in imaginative reconstruction, “through each others’ eyes.”

3.So what kind of cross-species identification does it take to get on a jet ski in the Antarctic Ocean to attack a Japanese whaling vessel & through acid at its crew?