October 8, 2010

Room... and Going Outside the Text

ROOM by Emma Donoghue was released in September, the same month it made the Booker prize shortlist, so I'd been seeing a lot about it on the literary blogosphere. The premise -- presented well by the book trailer -- intrigued and disturbed me: Jack, the five-year-old narrator, has spent his entire life in a room with his Ma, unable to leave, but perfectly content because he doesn't know there's any more to the world.

When I read Edan Lepucki's review at The Millions (contains spoilers), one line caught my attention: "[Jack's Ma] must keep Jack safe, but also entertained. And it’s not easy keeping a five-year-old entertained!" I'm still in the middle of Helen DeWitt's THE LAST SAMURAI, and much of the first half of that book is concerned with the difficulties of entertaining (and educating) a five-year-old. Thinking about that connection pushed ROOM from "would like to read someday" to "must read immediately".

I bought ROOM (the Kindle edition) and devoured it in three days, with breaks to read this week's section of THE LAST SAMURAI and marvel at the cognitive dissonance produced by reading both books at once. I spotted all sorts of weird similarities between the books and occasionally confused myself by misinterpreting things due to making an association with the wrong book.

Considering the books together led to me thinking about the stories in ways the authors didn't necessarily intend, but that also aren't necessarily so far from universal themes they may have had in mind. The circumstances of the mother and son in the two books are very different, except to the extent that they aren't. The life that Sibylla in THE LAST SAMURAI has created for herself and Ludo is an isolated one, and she often feels trapped, even if it's not in the literal sense that Ma and Jack are. For both pairs, the intrusion of the outside world leads to problems that didn't exist in the simpler world of just-the-two-of-us. And every time I thought about how different the characters are in the two books, I noticed more ways in which they are alike.

This reading experience made me think again of the column I linked to last week about reading multiple books at once. In the essay, Julia Keller says, "A wonderful literary synergy is created by the accidental juxtaposition of reading materials" and also "You can deliberately set books against each other". I might make a habit of co-reading books that go together in interesting ways. Any suggestions?

Even if you don't choose to pair it with THE LAST SAMURAI, I highly recommend ROOM (though if you're already feeling more disturbed than intrigued, this may not be the book for you). It's clear that Donoghue put a huge amount of thought and research into what this situation would be like and how it would work, and I was constantly impressed by how real and believable the story felt. I loved and hoped for the characters, and I never wanted to put the book (well, my phone) down.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Nathan Bransford talks about The Beatles. (Of course I'm going to link to that!) "Their greatness didn't just spring forth: they worked and worked and worked and worked some more. . . . the truth is boring: working very very hard and practicing a very very long time is not the stuff that great stories are made of."

→ A. Victoria Mixon offers 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive: "Why, if you did all this on every single page, you'd never have room for anything else! None of the other stuff you've written, none of the extra description, the unimportant actions, the insignificant dialog, the explanatory exposition, the filler. . ."

→ Vulture has screenshots showing what happens when Hogwarts gets online.

2 comments:

Neale said...

I heard Emma Donoghue interviewed on NPR last week and was somewhat intrigued by the premise of the book. I'm currently reading The Pillars of the Earth now on my iphone and it made me think of the character Jack who grew up in a cave with his mother hiding from the world.

laurenhat said...

Just ordered this based on your rec... I look forward to discussing it with you more after reading. :) Also, this reminds me that I have some books around here I should really return to you...

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