By Emma Donoghue
I tore through this book in a day. Then I thought about it for days. I am still thinking about it. Strangely, and not by design, three of my friends happened to read it at the same time. And we had to discuss it too. On the phone, over email, via Blackberry messenger – that doesn’t happen often, a book that stays with me and makes me uncomfortable, so much so that I have to yell about it with other people, as many other people as I can find. I do this with books I love, certainly, but I can’t say I loved Room. HOW could you love Room?
Room is also one of those books too that the farther away I get from having finished it, the more I hate it. Not It, as in what it is, because no doubt it’s certainly an achievement by the author and I don’t regret having read it, nor would I not recommend it to you – I do! – but the characters, their choices, the real life situations that inspired the story, makes me angry, all of it. I suppose that’s what some (most?) great books are supposed to do though, right? There’s no question that Room is engrossing, brilliantly conceived, thoughtfully written, thoroughly provoking. Room proves that a book’s value isn’t necessarily attached to enjoyment.
Much has been made of Donoghue’s use of language in Jack’s voice. It was very clever at the beginning. But goddamn did Jack’s silly babble start to grate by the end. I wonder if that’s on purpose. How a child’s incessant yapping, and in a confined space no less, can begin to wear on even his mother. That’s probably not germane to the story. That’s probably my own child-free slant.
What had to be totally deliberate though was Jack’s specific sentence structure and vocabulary – so advanced and yet so maddeningly basic, it made me crazy. Here’s a child who kept f-cking up “people” and “persons” and “brung” and so many other verbs but was able to use the word “besieged” like it’s part of every 5 year old vocabulary, and recite from quick memory 15 seconds of tv news dialogue on Parrot command per his mother’s instructions...
It was totally incongruous for me. And, frankly, to the point where I found it distracting. I’m sure you know-it-alls out there will tell me this is part of child development and that it’s not unusual for children to develop and stagnate at the same time, particularly in the area of communication. Fine. But if that’s the case, she didn’t make me believe it. And I find it/him annoying. Which probably wouldn’t have been such an obvious irritant had I not found Jack so revolting to begin with.
Jack and all his “some” talk.
I want some.
I had some.
I had lots and lots.
I had some from the left and it was extra creamy.
It’s not just that he’s a 5 year old still feeding from his mother’s breast; it’s totally normal across other cultures. It’s the way he said it. It’s the way the author kept phrasing it. That goddamn phrase:
I want some.
I started to dread it. I started to turn the page and hope to myself that we could get through another page without that kid “wanting some”. Donoghue, as noted, is very, very particular about language in her book. I have to believe that this is on purpose. That “I want some” was intended to elicit something from the reader. In my case pure unadulterated disgust. My friend Fiona felt that there was something uncomfortably sexual about the way Jack says it. The way he keeps saying it. The way he describes it. Grossed me out. Grossed her out. And I’m convinced it was supposed to. Because that would have been the eventual consequence of Room, right?
If Jack and Ma stay in Room, Ma must become all things to Jack. Or, more specifically, since she’s already everything to Jack, she’d have to be That Thing to Jack too. Please. It’s the most unimaginably terrifying situation. How could you predict what would happen if Jack were to grow into his sexuality in Room? And that the only option for it is His. Own. Mother.
I want some.
It’s three words and so much horror – THAT to me is the best example of Donoghue’s genius. Not Jack’s stupid baby babble, but those three words that keep coming up over and over again that fill you with dread. Terror in such a simple catch phrase – it’s incredibly skillfull, non?
And courageous too. It takes a lot of courage to create something with no finite explanation/solution/interpretation. Some people think Room is about Love. About a mother’s love for her child, his love for her in return, and how that love saves them from the most f-cked up situation ever. To me however Room isn’t so much about Love but about Choices in relation to Love, and selfishness vs selflessness. And the inevitable judgment that comes externally, but more importantly internally, when you have to finally face what it is that you did, even when you had the best excuse in the world to do it.
She had one baby, a girl, and it died. And she had access to birth control. We know this because Jack describes it. He describes Ma and her pills. They came in a pack of 28. But when she was so overcome with grief, bereft and desperate, she wanted that dead child to come back, she hoped it would, and in a way she actively tried to make it happen. She chose NOT to take birth control until AFTER Jack was born. She willingly brought Jack into the world. Into Room. Into imprisonment by Old Nick. She KNEW that life for Jack would be Room. And she did it anyway. In the end it was Jack who got them out, sure. Does that justify what she did? Jack knew only love for most of his life in Room. But does that absolve Ma from bringing him into Room?
You will say that I have no idea of the loneliness, that I have no idea what it means to be a mother. You’re right. I don’t. This is not the point. The point is that the default position for a parent is absolute Selflessness. I’m just saying Selfishness is one of the greatest motivators for having kids. Whether or not you’ve been held prisoner in a garden shed for 7 years. Ma wanted to love something. Ma needed to love something. Ma needed not to be alone. Inside or outside Room, isn’t that kinda the same?
And even though that TV lady interviewer did a bitch ass thing, her question was not unreasonable: why not ask Old Nick to drop the kid off at the hospital, get it put up for adoption, give Jack a chance at a life outside Room, give him an opportunity to exist beyond imprisonment? No, you’re right, no one would have had an easy time of it, letting go of her baby, and especially Ma, because that would mean Ma would have to go back to a Jack-less existence inside Room. But again, that all goes back to Ma, doesn’t it? She brought him there. She’s keeping him there. To say nothing of my friend Lorella’s chief obstacle in the book (who has two children of her own) – that she would have hated that Jack was half Old Nick, and as such isn’t sure if she could have actually loved him. Very valid. Here’s a guy who steals you from your world, holds you hostage and rapes you, and you not only WANT to have the baby, you end up loving it like you’ve never loved anything else...?
Lorella couldn’t buy it. But I bought it. I bought that Ma loved Jack. I bought that Ma loved Jack instantly, without hesitation. I buy into that possibility. What I don’t buy is that just because ma is a victim, that Ma is without fault. That Ma shouldn’t be judged for her choices. Having Jack was a choice. They were choices that tormented her, obviously; choices that ultimately led to her attempt on her own life after her television appearance, when she was publicly confronted with the impact those choices had on Jack’s life. It’s too easy to say that Ma was helpless. In her own helplessness, Ma introduced Jack to his. You can’t blame Old Nick entirely for that, can you?
This is what I admire most about Donoghue’s brave telling of the story. That on the surface this is an account of a woman who, through no fault of her own, has been trapped in the most grotesque of situations, and who finds herself creating a provocative one of her own. And in becoming a victim reveals that humanity can be, is, flawed. Not only on the part of those who are truly evil, but also in those who are affected by it.
So who plays Ma in the movie?
My first choice is Greta Gerwig.
My second choice is Emily Blunt.
Old Nick: Gerard Butler. Because he could totally skeeve you out like that.
Thoughts? Let me know!