Saturday, July 14, 2012

A View of ROOM

I don't do a lot of book reviews on this blog. I tend only to review books I read when they knock me over with a wrecking ball, or when I have extremely high expectations that don't reconcile in any way with the experience of reading it. (And even then, I don't always; I have yet to write a review of Watchmen [the former] or The Hunger Games [the latter].) The motivation is sometimes to drive people to drop what they're doing and go change their lives by reading a certain book, and sometimes it's something akin to screaming, "What were you thinking?" Upon finishing ROOM, a Booker Prize finalist and international bestseller that is published in 39 countries, I was so energized by my dislike for it that I sat down and promptly wrote about 1,600 words. I thought I'd reprint them here.

I don’t read a whole lot of novels anymore. More and more, I find myself starting popular, lauded novels, only to stop a third or halfway through because either they bore me or they irritate me, or both. I knew absolutely nothing about ROOM before I read it, only that I’d seen its cover frequently in the media and in “Best of” and “Must Read” lists, and that I thought that cover was one of the best ones I'd ever seen. I did not even read the jacket copy or the cover blurbs, preparing myself to become entirely enraptured in this “page turner” that had captivated so many readers.

However, it turned out ROOM was both boring and irritating. But I forced myself to finish to ensure I wasn’t missing a grand revelation that would make the whole ordeal worth it. I read the entire book from a Friday night to a Saturday afternoon because I was afraid if I stopped reading it, I would never pick up again. This revelation did not occur. I should have stopped reading.

**The remainder of this review contains SPOILERS**

The book is split into two halves of nearly identical length and is told through the eyes and voice of 5-year-old Jack. The first half of the book busies itself with showing how Jack and his mother busy themselves in an 11-by-11 room, wherein they are being held captive. A man, called Old Nick, brings them food and takes out their trash and rapes Jack’s mother, Ma. The story is considerably hampered by the first person narrative in Jack’s voice. While he ascribes names and genders to inanimate objects, the people in his life—Ma and Old Nick—fail to transcend being inanimate objects themselves.

To Jack, Ma is nothing more than his mother. I often observe women for whom motherhood is their personality, and they are patently uninteresting to me. Ma’s circumstances have made her into a person who is only “mother,” because to recognize herself as anything else would be unbearably devastating. (We do see how she deals with her flashes of recognition through a bit of non-serious drug use, and periods of catatonic depression.) Perhaps this is an issue with myself rather than the book, but I was not that interested in Ma as a character. Moreover, a 5-year-old narrator who has not yet developed his own skills of empathy does little to elicit empathy from the reader for the characters he observes.

Old Nick is the most uninteresting 2-dimensional villain of all time. More than anything, he serves as a plot device. He put Ma in the Room, he got her pregnant with Jack, he inexplicably let her keep Jack, and with nearly unbelievable stupidity, he allows them to escape, which sets up the second half of the book. There were multiple aspects of the set-up that did not serve to suspend my disbelief. The first was the entire premise of Ma having a child to begin with. There are so many questions raised that could not possibly be answered through Jack’s narrative. How was it that Old Nick apparently has sex with Ma nearly every night, but she only became pregnant twice in 7 years. The book sets up at the beginning that Ma takes birth control (ostensibly provided by Old Nick, who has a “guy”), but that obviously only started after she became pregnant with Jack. It’s revealed that she delivered a stillborn baby a year before Jack was born—why did Old Nick not put her on birth control then? If Ma enjoyed having babies, and Old Nick let her have them, why did she even take the birth control? Alternatively, why did she want to bring a baby into the horrible world she was living in? She reveals that she had an abortion when she was younger and did not regret it. Why did she let herself become, and remain, pregnant—twice—while in Room?

The escape itself was confusing. My first question was why on earth would Old Nick (who seemed to think of everything in designing his horrific love nest) not check to see if Jack was actually dead? Why would he not find a way to make sure Jack was dead, beat the body with a shovel or something? He’s supposed to be a psychopath, right? Was this out of respect or love for Ma? Old Nick’s motivations are paper thin, and the reader is just supposed to go with it. There was not enough here for me to go with it. My disbelief was not only not suspended, it grew with time. As a reader, I felt manipulated.

(Other readers have noted the similarities of this book to the Fritzl case and that the existence of a real-life case is evidence enough to support the premise of this book and its villain; I disagree that it’s enough, and a novelist owes her readers to create an entirely self-contained world.)

The second half of ROOM follows the escape, and has its roots in the classic trope of “Fish Out of Water” stories, with such subtropes as “Raised By Wolves” and “Stranger in a Familiar Land.” Ma attempts to reintegrate herself to the world from which she was taken, while Jack observes this new world through little “kids say the darnedest things” commentaries that are meant to be wise, but only skim the surface of striking a new insight. Every one of these “world through an innocent child’s eyes” scenes is deeply irritating. I was reminded of Tarzan, Third Rock From the Sun, Encino Man—any number of stories wherein someone unfamiliar with our world sees things differently and makes “profound” observations. They take idioms literally. They inadvertently ask silly questions that make people laugh. It’s been done to death, and it’s been done better.

That’s actually the best way I can describe my experience of this book: irritating. I won’t pretend that I’m a huge fan of small children in the first place, but being trapped in this kid’s head for the length of a book was the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I think part of it was because it wasn’t done exceptionally well. Jack is supposed to be precocious and have a big vocabulary. He also watches tons of television (where I imagine they speak like real people), and his mother frequently corrects his grammar. So why does he say ridiculously wrong things like, “Ma hots Thermostat way up”? There’s also inconsistency. I was inordinately irritated that Jack first says the trash can lid goes “ping,” then later it changes to “bing,” and still later it’s “ding.” Jack has childish obsessiveness with repeating and patterns and sameness, so it was really jarring when he didn’t follow the “rules” that were laid out for his character. Related to this, I was annoyed by the non-American speech mannerisms that abounded in the book, which ostensibly takes place in America, such as “bit” instead of “part” and “meant to” instead of “supposed to.” I know Donoghue is not American, but I shouldn’t have been able to tell that in the book—because Ma and Jack are. ROOM needed a much more highly skilled editor than was assigned.

The other major thing that irritated me about ROOM was that it seemed too self-aware and too clever, which again, did not serve the suspension of disbelief. It reminded me of the Time Traveler’s Wife in that the author was trying to be too hip for her book. Jarring pop culture references abounded, including song names like “Tubthumping” and “Lose Yourself.” (Really? Eminem? Really?) Dora the Explorer was an ongoing thematic element. Again, really? I wonder if perhaps Donoghue relied a little too much on her own relationship with her 5-year-old son to add veritas to the experience of a 5-year-old, instead of sticking with her own invented world. No one would have had a problem if Jack’s favorite television show was made up for this book only.

Related to this was the sense that Donoghue had some sort of unclear ideological motivations that she needed to get out in the book. The whole breastfeeding theme seemed unnecessary (not to mention uncomfortable); it was charged with something much more related to the author than the story. The secondary characters are aggressively diverse, with names like Ajeet, Oh, Lopez, and Yung. Ma’s brother, Paul, is in a “partnership” rather than a marriage (like the author herself), and it happens to be an interracial one at that. Now, I have no problem with any of this; I’m as progressive as it comes. But when you stick it in a novel the way Donoghue does, it’s not part of the book’s tapestry; it’s a big neon sign that says “Look how modern and progressive I am.” Coupled with the pop culture references, this book is going to have a really short shelf life.

But absolutely the worst part of the book was that it was boring. The things that children obsess over—their toys, their meals, their poo—are really not all that interesting to adults. Put that in a room where nothing ever happens, and it gets really old, really fast. There was some tension and movement once Ma decided to hatch their escape plan, but that lasted for maybe 15% of the book. After they escape, the tension dissipates completely, and I found myself skimming large sections just to see if anything was going to happen. No, nothing happened.

If you’ve read this far in the review, you’ve probably already read the book, so I can’t tell you now to take a pass. But I wish now I would have let someone stop me.


Lauren said...

No, I haven't read it. I haven't even HEARD of it, which I guess shows how old fashioned and non-progressive I am. :)

I don't usually read "must read" books because they are invariably badly written and boring.

Dan L-K said...

So there's this thing that happens every so often in the world of for-want-of-a-better-word litfic, where an author who wouldn't be caught dead with a copy of The Martian Chronicles gets this Flash of Insight, and goes "Wait! What if, in The Future, everyone had computers in their heads? OMG BRILLIANT!" and SF is in the back of the room with its hand up, going "Hel-LO, we covered this THIRTY YEARS AGO JEEZUS."

I haven't read ROOM, but it sounds like maybe something not-unlike happened here. Except the ghettoized genre with its hand in the air might be Horror. (I dunno for sure, since this isn't much the kind of horror I read long-form. But I can totally see, frex, Kathe Koja or Brian Hodge taking this concept and not making a complete hash of it. Or someone like Graham Masterton or John Shirley, I suppose, except then there'd be some horrible monster waiting in the middle of it and the walls would be painted red by the end of the second act. Which from the sound of it might have been a much-improved book.)

John said...
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