Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Voice in a Room

Freedom or Death--"This Crowded Room" (mp3)

A small room. A mother and a son. The only place he has ever lived. The only place that she has lived for the past five years since she was abducted and held in this room, repeatedly raped by "Old Nick," who comes in the room at night, until eventually, the son, the five-year-old narrator, "happened in [his mother's] tummy" and, on his fifth birthday, appeared on page to begin to tell us his story.

The book is Room. The author is Emma Donoghue. The narrator is Jack.

Jack is quite the idiosyncratic narrator. He personifies all of the inanimate objects in the room--Bed, Mirror, Wardrobe, etc.--so that they seem almost human (I know that sounds redundant, but when you read the book, you'll get the point). He uses slightly skewed language (death becomes "go back to Heaven") and his perceptions are a bit off(he knows that the people on TV aren't quite real, but he isn't sure why or how, especially with Dora The Explorer who seems more able to interact with him than others). I'm pretty sure that he still breastfeeds and has other closeness with his mother atypical for a boy his age. And, of course, he has never left this room (the stains from his birth are still on the rug).

My issue with Jack is that I am not quite sure that I believe him.

Notice, I did not say say problem; I said issue. Because the creation of a narrator is one of the most difficult challenges a writer of fiction faces, and I think that people who read a lot know this and are consequently willing to give the writer plenty of leeway. And then it becomes a choice that the reader makes. Do I not believe the narrator, or do I not believe him enough? If the first choice, then a reader like me probably adds that to the heaping pile of "suspensions of disbelief" that he stacks next to him, stacks it right on top of "what are the circumstances under which this five year old boy is even able to tell us his story," while he reads and keeps on. If the second choice, then a reader probably says, "Nope. Too much," and puts the book down for good.

With Room and me, that's remains to be decided. And since I'm only 28 pages into a 320+ page book, I don't know the answer myself. I'm pretty excited to find out.

And so, come with me briefly on this intellectual exercise: do I not believe Jack and what he says or do I not believe the creation of him (as a character)? Next door to me lives a 5-year-old girl named Liza. I see her fairly often, I talk with her and her grandmother, I watch them plant flowers or her ride her scooter while I'm cutting the grass, she has played with my cats, now cat, since they were kittens. And while I obviously don't know what she's thinking at any given time, I do get a pretty good sense of her "fiveness."

Jack's is very different. But then, Jack has been "homeschooled." He has been homeschooled like nobody's business, engaged in a constant give-and-take with a very patient mother 24/7, 365 X 5. And so perhaps it is no surprise that he seems older, wiser, more literate than the typical kid his age.

What works in Ms. Donoghue's favor, I think, is that we really have little to compare Jack to. My partner-in-crime, Billy, has cleverly paired Room with The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime for his Summer Reading Group, and, in many way, that autistic narrator is the precursor for Jack.

The real challenge for me, and perhaps the ultimate sticking point, is that I am not sure that a 5-year-old narrator is viable, for two reasons: 1) I'm not sure a 5-year-old knows enough to tell a story (let me rephrase that, a 5-year-old clearly knows enough to tell numerous, fascinating stories, but may not know enough language to get a complex story like this told), and 2) I'm not sure an adult, no matter how creative and accomplished he or she is, can get back to his or her "fiveness" enough to be able to recreate that voice.

Huck Finn, to me, is a no-brainer. Same with Holden Caufield. Or Ellen Foster. Not because they have been established as classic narrators, but because when they are telling their stories, they are old enough that I don't question their ages, their authority.

Finally, though, it may not matter. It may well be that what I connect with is Jack the character, not Jack the 5-year-old, and that's okay, that's fine, that will keep me reading the book. But I suspect that all the way through this book there will be a little something nagging at me, maybe a little too much feeling of the author at work.

Maybe I'll be left with just a simple "I don't believe Jack." But that's okay. Sometimes I don't believe myself.

"This Crowded Room" is a very good example of a modern song. Well done, Freedom or Death!


Billy said...

I'm skeptical as well. On the bright side, if it's hard to believe in a fictional character, it's even harder to believe memoirs and non-fictional accounts. I'm more likely to believe Jack than Greg Mortenson...

Sara C said...

I'll be interested to hear how your belief problem resolves as you finish the book. After you've read it, go here for my thoughts on the subject.

I'll also be very interested to hear about the book group in Sept. What a cool pairing!

Bob said...

Thanks, Sara. I'll look forward to it. I read some more at lunch today, and that ain't no 5 year old talkin'. But the situation and feeling of dread keeps me going.