I wish I’d kept this blog going during medical school, back when I read more fiction. The two best books I discovered during that time are both criminally underpopular: John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra (1934) and John Fowles’ The Collector (1963). The O’Hara novel resembles The Great Gatsby in its setting and focus (the fall of a man of high society during the Jazz Age) but is better written, feels more real. The Fowles novel, like Lolita, accomplishes the astonishing feat of making the reader understand and empathize with a criminal sociopath. Fowles’ sociopath is a lonely clerk who kidnaps an art student and keeps her prisoner in his basement. When a very similar crime was exposed in Austria a few years ago, I was surprised that The Collector wasn’t mentioned by commentators, although I guess it just goes to show the book’s undeserved obscurity in pop culture.
The Collector came to mind when I saw the premise of Emma Donoghue’s Room, which has frequently been listed as one of the best books of 2010. A sociopathic rapist has likewise imprisoned the heroine of Room in his soundproofed garden shed for the past seven years, but the twist is that the story is told by the now-five-year-old boy who was conceived via this crime. The narrative technique is therefore a lot like the one in To Kill a Mockingbird: bad crimes and wrongs are made approachable by halfway seeing them through a child’s eye and leaving the rest to be inferred by an adult reader. Room takes on an extreme question about developmental psychology: what would life be like if you believed that the entire world consisted of an 11 x 11 foot windowless room and that you and your mother (and your occasionally visiting captor) were the only people in it? And how would your understanding unfold, if one day you were told it was actually otherwise?
Although the premise is offbeat, Donoghue doesn’t end up doing anything surprising with it. We learn that the child’s mind is plastic and resilient, whereas his mother is more deeply affected by the trauma. We learn that she better endures her ordeal because she lavishes love on her child and is able to pass her days in the shed by focusing totally on his education and entertainment. The gimmick of the narration gets a bit old as everything we see is filtered through his linguistic errors and limited understanding—for hundreds of pages. The note on which the book ends, when Ma has to do something very emotionally difficult so that Jack can have the closure he demands, is just painful. Sure, critics have noted that Room avoids the trap of journalistic exploitation and voyeurism by taking the unusual angle that it does, but I can’t help but feel that Ma is re-victimized at the end and without sufficient cause.