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Room: Rule-breaking and untouchable

9 Aug

Speaking of five year olds, here’s some thoughts on the best contemporary book I’ve read this year.

There are many things that I’ve heard many times in writing workshops that become, with their strong admonishments, challenges like forbidden fruit. Don’t leave a character alone too long, If you have a gun in the first scene, it better go off in act three, don’t use a narrator that can’t understand what’s happening (like a very young child or a person who is crazy or mentally retarded.) Hearing these warnings over and over has made me somewhat obsessed with finding examples of great things that break those rules. For instance, The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon is a wonderful, rare book from Stephen King that brazenly breaks that first rule, as the girl of the title is alone in the woods for about 150 of the 200 pages. Despite my stubborn love for Mr. King, Emma Donoghue, I must admit, achieved greater heights in her Room.

Room tells the story of the last several days of the incarceration of a mother and her five year old son in a nine-by-nine room that has the bare minimum of basic necessities. The child was born in the room and knows nothing else. The first few chapters create a slow, dawning horror, because though the child is happy as a lamb, the reader gradually becomes aware of the extreme limitations of his world.

I read Room all of an evening, unable to put the thing down. I picked it up because someone at the bookstore mentioned that it was told from the first person perspective of a five-year-old child (a very broken rule!). I was more curious about that than anything, and I picked it up intending to read just enough of it to get a feel of the voice, mainly because I didn’t really have the time to read an novel that day. All I wanted was to see if I bought the narrator as a five-year-old, and I fully expected to be annoyed and disappointed. But Room had other plans for me evidently, because it was 3:30 that morning when I finished, wet-faced from tears and exhausted, as if I, not the narrator, had just gone through the most psychologically bizarre trials.

With any unconventional narrator, there is a bit of a learning curve. Getting used to the voice can sometimes take a great deal of patient pages, but by the end of the first chapter, Jack’s voice is alive and clearly understandable. There are quirks to the style of narrative, of course, but they are, if not essential, revealing of his character and not muddling or disruptive to the progress of the plot. He personifies everything and assigns gender according to his whims: Bed is a she, TV is a he and has other vocabulary besides (to “get some” is to breast feed, and there are names for all the games his mother invents to fill their time.) The filter of the child’s perception, while consistent throughout, does not impede clarity of plot at any point in the novel that I could see, and by the end was essential to really feel the emotional impact.
*semi-spoilers after this point*
Jack’s escape and reentrance into the world is abrupt and terrifying. Without the filter of his perception, it would have seemed more like the first five minutes of a Law and Order: SVU episode than the truly shattering experience it was for his character, more akin to Plato’s man emerging from the cave (but also with the very real threat of death and pain).

Can anyone think of other books that break those workshop rules? Or break rules of the genre?