The Reading Room: Reading the “Room”
By Miranda Marraccini '12, Staff Writer
If “Room” were a movie, it would begin as a series of extreme close-ups, focusing one after another on a series of tiny, revealing details: a skylight covered in wire mesh, a child’s height marked in pencil inching up the wall, a stained rug, a dead plant. This is how Emma Donoghue introduces us to her titular location, in glimpses and murmurs. We see Room through the perceptive but often uncomprehending eyes of its remarkable narrator, Jack, who turns five on the first page.

Jack sees everything. But “everything” in this case is limited to the contents of the eleven-by-eleven-foot room (“Room”) where he lives with his mother (“Ma”) and a collection of objects so familiar that they have reached the status of proper nouns (“Bed,” “Rug” and “Wardrobe” are a few of Jack’s friends). Only one regular visitor disturbs their perfect mother-son exile: a man who comes through the locked door at night, inspiring in Ma fear and abhorrence that even Jack senses.

Jack begins to understand that he and Ma are captives and that the cozy, rigorously structured world in which they live is no more than a soundproofed cell. Anything outside Room is “outer space” to Jack, or sometimes “Outside,” a place that seems less real to him than television. Gradually, the painful details of this alien reality begin to intrude, and Ma finds it more and more difficult to satisfy Jack’s curiosity without sacrificing his happiness. Eventually, the truth forces itself upon Jack, and Room becomes a darker and less certain place.

It is in this first part of the book (slightly less than half) that Donoghue’s writing is strongest and most devastating. Jack’s emotional power as a narrator derives from his singular combination of wisdom and incomprehension — in the gap between what Jack sees and what he understands, between what he knows and what we do. One morning, after their captor visits, Jack notices red marks on Ma’s neck “like when I’m painting with beet juice.” “You’re dirty on her neck,” he tells her. That moment, when we understand Ma’s torture, and Jack is heartbreakingly unaware, is a punch to the gut, one of many that Donoghue inflicts.

I don’t want to ruin the suspense of what is, at times, a thrillingly suspenseful novel, but for reviewing purposes, I will say that not all of the action of the book takes place in Room. The second half of the book expands outward and Donoghue loses some potency as the setting loses its confining bounds. Her writing is diluted by the vastness of Outside and contaminated by a sort of lazy satire. Donoghue introduces fatuous minor characters who compare the captives’ ordeal, tastelessly, to a peaceful retreat in “a monastery in Scotland” and who use words like “inner child,” “post-modernity” and “zeitgeisty.” These are easy targets and Donoghue spends too much time pulling them apart when she could be burrowing deeper into Jack’s damaged psyche.

Finally, Donoghue’s dénouement, which she sets up with visible care, seems too pat for a novel of such vital originality. It feels inevitable, as though Jack knows where the story will end even before he tells it and has been guiding the action the whole time, a feeling entirely at odds with the book’s otherwise breathless immediacy.

For all this, Donoghue’s two protagonists remain strong characters. Ma sheds her Madonna-like mantle of care and becomes a complex woman with faults (defensiveness, a snappish temper) as well as triumphs. Jack grows just enough to make us confident in his shining future. And the specter of Room is persistently haunting—a symbol of blissful ignorance and painful knowledge, and the various meanings of freedom, psychological and physical.

Issue 19, Submitted 2011-03-23 01:28:54