Thursday, January 27, 2011

Not that I needed an excuse to hug Mr F and Mr Bunches (The Rum Punch Review of "Room," by Emma Donoghue, pt. 3)

Read part 1 here.

Read part 2 here.

As I was reading Room, I began to wonder how Emma Donoghue was going to keep the book going -- because it was tense and suspenseful and moving for the first 1/3 or so, as Jack and his mom live their lives for a few days in the Room, but after reading a few chapters of that, I began to wonder how she'd keep it up for the remainder of the book.

(I knew that I was 1/3 of the way through because I was reading it on the Kindle, which doesn't go by page numbers but by percentage of the book that's finished, something I didn't like at first but I do like now that I've gotten used to it. I have a bad habit, when I read, of wondering how much of the book is left compared to how much I've read, and just eyeballing a hard copy of a book was never much of a fix, for me: I didn't want to just look and say "I'm about 1/5 through," so I'd sometimes page to the end, to see what page number the book ended on, and then compare that to where I was. Which caused a bigger problem, in that I had to go to the last page of the book without looking at the actual ending of the book, because I didn't want to spoil the book, even though, if you think about it, very rarely does the actual last page of the book contain many spoilers.

Books, after all, aren't Law & Order episodes, where there can be a dramatic moment and then everything fades to black. Books tend to have their dramatic moments near the end, with the final few pages, or sometimes chapters, wrapping up some details or otherwise tidying up the world that's been created.

The worst of that type of thing was in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where Tolkien had the last battle, and then another last battle, and then a [SPOILER ALERT!] dramatic rescue by eagles that mirrored (copied?) the earlier dramatic rescue by eagles in the prequel The Hobbit, and then an extended epilogue where the characters milled around the seven-ringed city, and then an extended epilogue, too, where they went to Rivendell (I think?) and then they went back to the Shire and had to reconquer that, and then they had a big birthday party or something and all sailed off to the Elven world, so that (as I recall) roughly 2/3 of The Return Of The King was anticlimactic wrap-up that could've been skipped. Or packed into a different book that nobody would read, like The Silmarillion was.

The Silmarillion was another of the once-rare-but-increasingly-common "Books I Started But Never Finished." I used to go on reading books no matter what, even if they were really boring or stupid, but there were some books, even back when I was bullheaded, that I couldn't finish no matter how hard I tried... which is saying something, considering that I finished both Moby-Dick and Anna Karenina. (And especially considering neither of them was worth the effort.)

The books that I can recall trying to read but not finishing because they were just... too... boring are:

1. The Silmarillion.

2. The Name Of The Rose, by Umberto Eco. I read Foucault's Pendulum, twice, but couldn't get through this book.

3. Mason + Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon. I made it through 50 pages and gave up. Like David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon is overrated by pseudo-intellectuals who (I bet) don't actually read the books, since they're virtually unreadable.

4. The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perotta. I was halfway through it when I had to return it to the library because I couldn't check out a CD I wanted until I returned the book. And I never went back to finish it.

5. Infinite Jest. See number 3. I'm still mad about this one, because I got caught up in all the DFW hype and, on a trip to the bookstore with Sweetie (pre-Kindle), I opted to get this tome of garbage rather than a book of short horror stories by Joe Hill. (Ultimately I got the Hill collection, 20th Century Ghosts, and it was worth it.)

6. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Why is this book so popular? I bought it for Sweetie, who showed no signs of wanting to read it, and then started trying to read it myself, but it was like forcing my way through a gardening catalog. (Almost literally, as the first 10,000,000 words are describing a flower.)

So I like to know how far I am in the book, but didn't like to skip ahead and spoil the ending, even though it's almost impossible to spoil the ending of a book simply by looking at the last page. And I know that, although I still worry about it -- and worried about it all the more so when John Irving made such a big deal about how he'd written the last line of his book Last Night In Twisted River (my review here), and that turned out to be overblown, too.

I was thinking, though, as I read Room, that Donoghue had to do something to keep the plot moving forward, or the feel of the book would grow stale... and thinking about the writing itself is not a good sign, as I noted when I talked about Jonathan Franzen's overwriting. But Donoghue didn't fall into that trap, because she moved the story forward in the way I least expected -- but probably in the way I should have most expected: by having the kidnapper, Old Nick, "punish" Jack and his mom for some infraction or other, the punishment being to turn off the power in Room, a development that finally convinces Jack's mom that she must escape the Room, and she and Jack together cook up a plan.

[SPOILER ALERT!] Jack and his mom then do escape -- the plan almost working almost perfectly -- and that's when Room goes from great to brilliant, as Jack and his mom cope with their introduction to a world Jack's mom barely remembered and Jack never believed existed. They're rescued and we see everything through Jack's eyes: The abundance of things and people and food, and the overwhelming sensations of wind and sun and grass and bugs and the playground and other people all washing over him and threatening to upset his barely-there equilibrium, and upsetting his mom's nature even worse.

Almost all of the big developments take place offstage, as it were -- as it natural, given that the narrator is a 5-year-old boy who can barely understand lawyers setting up interviews with TV hosts, let alone how to describe these things he's never seen before. The book moves from episode to episode, each as serious and dramatic as the rest. To Jack, putting syrup on pancakes is both gross and as momentous as a trip to the mall. He doesn't know how to go up and down stairs, and has never been in the sun. He gets his first cold, ever, and has to deal with that.

Through the latter 2/3, Room proves as disorienting to read as it would have been to live through it, a hallmark of how well written the book is: It moves along briskly, but the sense of space and time is messed up; I thought that months had passed when it was mere days or weeks. The feel is both claustrophobic and expansive, in a good way: Donoghue keeps the focus on minute details, so that Jack appears to be breaking down everything in his life to an 11x11 room, parceling out his experiences to make them understandable, and survivable.

And then Room ends... as abruptly and unfinishedly as it began, only about weeks (in story time) after the first scenes of the book. It ends on a hopeful note: Jack and his mom have a list of things they hope to try someday -- things that are both happy and sad as you read the list and realize that their dreams are very different from the things we imagine; have you ever been afraid to walk out into the rain? Probably not.

The initial hesitance I'd had to read Room, and the limits I had to put on reading it for the first few chapters, melted away, and the book became one I couldn't wait to pick up, one I'd struggle to keep awake to finish just a few more pages. The subject matter still bothers me -- and I don't think I'll ever forget Jack and his mom and the stories and games they told each other and the limited glimpse I got into their life -- but after reading the book, I'm glad I bought it.

It's rare that a book manages to so completely transport me to another world that I get engrossed in it and can almost picture what it's like to live in that world. It's even more rare that the world I get taken to is my own -- but that's what Donoghue has achieved in Room. She's shown me the world the way I pray it never will be, for me or for anyone else: Parceled out, limited, strange, and only becoming wonderful in slow, frightening stages, and in doing so, made me value my own experiences that much more.

And, also, I feel compelled to note that the night I finished it, I went and gave Mr F and Mr Bunches hugs as they slept. It felt like I ought to.

Click here to see all the Rum Punch Reviews.

1 comment:

Rogue Mutt said...

Sounds like an intriguing book.

I've never read any on your boring list. If you want to try some Pynchon that isn't 1000+ pages, read "The Crying of Lot 49" which is pretty short. Also pretty odd but very interesting.

Though your reaction to Pynchon/Wallace is like mine to Quentin Tarantino movies. I've tried watching them and except for "Reservoir Dogs" I've found them to be so boring and self-consciously trying to appear hip like one of those guys in those Miller Lite commercials who goes to the bar in sunglasses or skinny jeans or a thong trying to act cool.