Thursday, October 21, 2010

Spaced out

To readers who are too busy or distracted or interested enough to not read beyond a paragraph, let me cut to the chase: Room is a masterpiece and Emma Donoghue is a genius. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, here’s more about it.

In a flourish reminiscent of a nineteenth century novel, Room rings up its curtain on its 11X11 eponymous setting. Its inhabitants, Jose and her son Jack, have been holed up there since time immemorial. Living within the soundproofed cell, the mother-son duo’s only connection with the outside world is a psychopath, Old Nick, who held Jose in captivity seven years ago. Jack is made to believe that the world is an oyster called television where the cartoon characters are his “real” friends and a saccharine lollipop (courtesy Old Nick) is the best thing he ever tasted.

When he turns five, Jack’s mother tells him so many things he never thought possible. Being the narrator, Jack coins a term for these revelations in his typical fashion: unlying. In a manner inspired by the Count of Monte Cristo, Jack makes it to the open world and, subsequently, so does his mother. Of course, with a fair bit of action involved.

While this part of the novel sounds like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (think of it as chick lit for non-chick lit readers), the following portions take David Foster Wallace tones — post-modern irony on crack. When Jack is confronted with the harsh realities of the open world, he turns into a victim of Stockholm Syndrome and his mother is no better.

In a shade over 300 pages, Donoghue captures physical deprivation and human degradation, not to mention the most poignant mother-son relationship committed to paper. The plot of the seventh novel of this Ireland-born, Canada-based author seems like an obvious nod to the Fritzl case in Austria — when, in 2008, Elisabeth Fritzl accused her father Josef of holding her captive for 24 years and subjecting her to sexual abuse. Donoghue categorically dismissed the notion. Speaking to the Guardian, she said: “It’s too strong, I’d say it was triggered by it.” Some similarities, however, are hard to miss. Jack, who is released from the garden shed, is the same age Felix Fritzl was when his mother emerged from her dungeon.

That being said, there is so much to celebrate about Room. It’s never easy to narrate the story through the eyes of a five-year-old, whose vocabulary would not extend beyond a handful of words and understanding of the world would be stunted at best. In fact, Donoghue’s writing style, its present tense notwithstanding, can be sandbagged into a kind of hard-boiled poetry, what with the machine-gun cadence interspersed with abbreviated sense impressions (Jim Thompson would be a proud man). Sample this: When a news reporter insinuates to Jose that she might have wanted to kill the kid, Jose bristles, “What, put a pillow over his head?” Jack thinks to himself, “Is that me Ma means? But pillows go under heads.” Considering the kid at the heart of the novel is a bastard child, this is, all rights reserved, inglorious bastardry at its best.

The novel’s second half lends gold standard credence to the old saw that “every man is an island”. Most of us only do things in our day-to-day life and, consequently, we don’t live a life. Here are two people who shared five years in an almost Amish lifestyle never craving for technological felicities beyond the bare minimum. Jack curbs his desire to take his own picture with the following reasoning: “I was going to take one (a picture) of me in the mirror (phone camera) but then I’d be a paparazzi.” (Italics are mine).This novel is a stab at modern man’s compulsion to buy the new car, the faster laptop, the inflated stock. For fear of becoming dinosaurs, are we turning into sheep? This question turns moot in the novel.

Unable to cope with urban demands, Jose tries to kill herself to which Jack remarks, “I saved her, only then she didn’t want to be alive anywhere.” The writing sometimes seems ill-suited to those faint of heart. There’s this gut-wrenching talk between the mother and son when the former describes how she gave birth to a stillborn baby before Jack.

Though the book is suffused with immensities, there are a few immaturities too. I understand that the narrator is a five-year-old and to retain the cutesy factor, Donoghue makes him commit grammatical howlers, which he fails to rectify despite his mother’s persistent corrections. This, when he undertook a complex task (for a five-year-old) to trick the captor. At times, Jack’s weariness seems beyond his age: “In Room we knowed what everything was called but in the world there’s so much, persons don’t even know the names.” Really?

I wouldn’t give a hang if Room doesn’t get the Booker (it’s on the shortlist) but my disappointment would know no bounds if it doesn’t find mention along with the works of literary masters that delight in misery: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Susan Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle, J G Ballard’s High Rise, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and J M Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Enter this Room to expand your world.


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