Monday, January 17, 2011

It's not supposed to all take place in an 11x11 room. (The Rum Punch Review of "Room" by Emma Donoghue, part 2)

(Read Part One, here.)

As I was saying, it was a tough decision to decide to buy, and read, Room, because I have a hard time not worrying about the Babies!, and consequently I seem to have a hard time separating fictional works about people who've suffered kid-related problems and my own life.

But everytime I would go on my Kindle and look at the wish list to decide what book to buy, there it was: Room, Emma Donoghue, calling to me, until finally, just before Christmas, I decided Oh, heck, just buy it.

I immediately regretted and loved that decision. Room sucked me in, immediately -- making my stomach clench up with tension as I began reading it.

Room is told from the perspective of Jack, a five-year-old who lives in a tiny 11 x 11 room with his mom. Jack's mom has been abducted, and she gave birth to Jack while she's being held captive. Jack was born in, and has lived in, the 11x11 room --which he calls Room -- all his life.

The story begins on Jack's fifth birthday, with Jack introducing us to the characters in his life: his Mom, but the other "people" in his world: Jack's world is made up of the inanimate objects who fill his life, too, from "Egg Snake," which is a collection of eggshells on a thread stored under the bed, to various toys to Wardrobe (where Jack sleeps on the nights when his mom's abductor comes visiting.)

The story itself is both weirdly claustrophobic and brisk moving, the latter despite the fact that nothing much happens. Jack goes through his fifth birthday, getting his present and a cake, and through the routine of his day: he gets to watch two TV shows, showing people from "outer space," as he calls what he believes to be the made-up world outside of room, the world he sees on TV. (He calls the television stations and shows he watches other "planets".) He goes through gym class -- his Mom has him do exercises -- and practices what passes for his schooling, naming things and spelling words and reading one of the five books he has.

The whole thing seems normal but is heartbreaking for that: Jack's world is anything but normal, and it's sad because of that feeling. On his birthday, Jack gets his present from his mom: A hand-drawn picture of himself that, his mom explains, she drew while he was sleeping because she didn't want him to know about it and spoil the surprise. When I read that, I felt sad for Jack not getting more for his birthday -- and then sad for myself for thinking that Jack's birthday required toys and games and books and more, rather than a mother who loves him.

Which is part of the heartbreaking and sad and yet thoughtful quality that comes out of Room, as we learn about Jack's life: We are constantly trying to tell ourselves that this thing doesn't matter or that thing doesn't matter, trying to arrange in categories and ranks what's really important in our life versus what's not important. We say it's the thought that counts or what kids really need is parents who love them and the like, but we never really think about what those mean or what would happen if those platitudes came literally true.

I'm a fan of argument by exaggeration to make a point. Here's an example: a year ago, I was talking with my brother about whether or not it was okay for people to go out shopping on Thanksgiving. We were talking about my belief that the holiday would eventually disappear and how in part that was because people felt free to go out shopping and we had this discussion:

Him: I'd never go out shopping on Thanksgiving. Never.

Me: Sure you would.

Him: Never.

Me: Suppose they had a promotion where the first 20 people at Wal-Mart got 60" plasma TVs. Wouldn't you line up then?

Him: No way. Not worth it.

Me: What if the first 20 people got $1,000,000? Then would you go?

Him: Well, sure, then, I might try to line up.

So I established that there are times he'd think it's okay to leave the house and go to Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving -- it's just a matter of degree. He'll go for a million bucks. Other people will go if they can get Zhu Zhu pets 3 for $10.

Once you establish that it's okay to do something on Thanksgiving, something commercial, the argument-by-exaggeration has proved its point: There's no absolute there, so the I'd never go anywhere on Thanksgiving rule isn't a rule at all. The actual rule is I'd never go anywhere on Thanksgiving, unless I thought it was really worth it.

It's the same way with people who only play the lottery when the award is a hundred million or more (something that a comedian once joked about: oh, I only play when the award's a hundred million. I'm not settling for just fifty million. Or something like that.) They're not against the lottery; they just want a bigger reward for their (nominal) investment.

In a similar vein, Room made me think about all those things we say so often about kids and parents and our lives and our philosophies. I'm one of those parents who says things like What kids really want is time with their parents. But here's a kid who had almost nothing but time with his mom -- and I thought it was horrible.

So why was it horrible? Because the childhood wasn't normal: It was a mockery of childhood -- a kid with nothing but free time, spending it all with his mom, who appeared to be a very level-headed mom, limiting his TV and making him exercise and eat right and reading to him and encouraging his mental development, all those things that kids are supposed to do...

...but it's not supposed to all take place in an 11x11 room, is it? So the ongoing story, as Jack's and his mom's life unfolds, with its domestic details (they take a bath, they wash their clothes in the bathtub, they clean the Room, they draw, they play games) becomes sadder and more horrifying the more I thought about it, the more I read about it. It became too depressing, almost, to read, and a couple times I had to deliberately stop reading because it became too much to take. Jack's life, although he doesn't know it, is a parody of real life in which the only outside he sees is on TV and through a tiny skylight where sometimes he can see God's face - the sun- shining in.

That's all bad enough. It's hard enough to contemplate raising a kid under those circumstances. (It's not hard to contemplate being a kid: Jack doesn't know there's anything wrong with his life, or even anything unusual about it. He hasn't yet gathered that there must be living people outside the Room and doesn't know that their lives are not so circumscribed as his.) I kept, as I was reading, wondering what I'd do, how I wouldn't crumble under the pressure of wondering what will happen when Jack is six, or seven, or thirteen.

I feel bad, as a parent, when I screw up in a minor way. Yesterday, I promised Mr Bunches that we'd go to the library after going to the office. But the library didn't open until 1, and we had other errands to do, so I told him we'd have to go to the library another time. Then I felt awful and stopped to let him get some colors and a set of trucks (with army men and a book for Mr F) to make it up to him.

If not getting to go to the library makes me feel that bad, how would not being able to let my son go to the park feel?

Then, there are the elements of Jack's life that he presents as perfectly normal -- because they're part of his daily life and he doesn't know anything different -- while we know them for what they are: worse parts of his life.

Those parts include the daily scream, when his Mom and he stand up and yell at the top of their lungs as long as they can to try to attract attention. Jack doesn't know why he does this, but he helps out. And those parts include visits from Old Nick, the man who captured Jack's mom and who comes visiting some, but not all, nights. On those nights, Jack must go in the wardrobe to sleep and listens quietly to what's going on outside the little enclosure -- the room within a Room -- to try to figure out this strange element of his world. (Jack's mom makes him go into the wardrobe because she doesn't want Old Nick to ever see Jack, even though Old Nick is Jack's biological father.)

Just detailing Jack's life with his Mom carried the book probably through a third or half the book, with no other tension beyond those I just described: the tension of raising a boy under those circumstances, of the sometimes-visits from a captor, and the discrepancies between Jack's life and what we consider "normal."

Then the book takes a more dramatic twist, even, as Old Nick turns off the power for a few days and Jack's mom decides they have to leave. And that's where Room turns from a disturbing-but-good book into a truly great one.

Go on to part three by clicking here.

Read More Rum Punch Reviews by clicking here.

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