Rite of Corruption

James Wood

  • Room by Emma Donoghue
    Picador, 321 pp, £12.99, July 2010, ISBN 978 0 330 51901 4

All fictions are closed worlds, smaller than our own, and so it is not surprising that novelists are often drawn to represent very small worlds – boarding houses, hotels, a plague-sealed town, a single day in a prison, a bare room. These reduced spaces intensify the fictionality that made them: they are as bound as a book. Depending on the intensity of the reduction, plot slows down to an agonising verisimilitude, because the writer needs both to entrap the reader and to persuade the reader that this entrapment is abnormally normal. Thus Ivan Denisovich has an ordinary day in his camp; Hamm and Clov bicker; the father and son in the post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road drink Coke, pitch their tent and cook dinner; the clone-donors in Never Let Me Go squabble over a stolen geometry set. All of these texts belong, really, to prison literature, in which the smallest detail – a breadcrumb, a passing bird, a drop of rainwater – is tortured, from desperation, into a swollen effigy, many times its normal size.

Abnormal normality is the operating principle of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, which is a kind of prison-lit lite. Based on the Josef Fritzl case, it is narrated by Jack, a five-year-old American, whose mother was abducted at the age of 19 and imprisoned in a single room measuring 121 square feet. She is now 26. The boy’s mother is regularly visited by her abductor, though only at night; Jack, the rapist’s child, was born in this room, and has known no other life. The nameless abductor, whom Jack calls Old Nick, provides food, clothes, toys, electricity and air conditioning. Room follows the outlines of the Austrian case quite closely. One of the rescued Austrian children was Jack’s age – five-year-old Felix Fritzl. As Josef Fritzl did, Jack’s father cuts off power to the room as punishment. As in the Fritzl story, a child’s sickness is the lever that opens the chest of horrors: in Donoghue’s version, Jack fakes an illness and he and his mother stage his death in order to get his body removed from the room; after being wrapped in a rug, he escapes, and gets the police to rescue his mother. Outside their prison, Jack and his mother struggle with the glare of ordinary reality; like the deprived Fritzl children, Jack flinches from bright sunlight, panics at banal challenges, and needs therapeutic help with daily life.

Life inside his prison seems quite normal to Jack, and he happily tells us all about it:

We do Bowling with Bouncy Ball and Wordy Ball, and knock down vitamin bottles that we put different heads on when I was four, like Dragon and Alien and Princess and Crocodile, I win the most. I practice my adding and subtracting and sequences and multiplying and dividing and writing down the biggest numbers there are. Ma sews me two new puppets out of little socks from when I was a baby, they’ve got smiles of stitches and all different button eyes.

Since Jack’s known world is limited and unique, he presumes a reality of naive singularities: he calls his space Room, because he knows only this room, and has named other objects in the same way – Sink, Wardrobe, Door, Toilet, Blanket. He knows about the Outside, because he watches television. Donoghue pursues the logic of this cheerful deprivation with some acuteness and wit. When Jack sees someone in an advert swallowing the same kind of painkiller his mother takes (pills provided by Old Nick), he exclaims that the man on the TV has taken Ma’s pills. His mother tries to explain that they are not the same pills, that there are lots of them in the world, to which Jack poses the perfectly reasonable question: ‘Where?’ Her subsequent lesson, that ‘what we see on TV’ is ‘pictures of real things’, is met with astonished scepticism. Jack thinks of television as an entirely fictional ‘planet’: ‘The planet’s changed to a game of football.’ He refuses to accept that his Mother was ever ‘in the Outside’, and doesn’t really believe her when she tells him that she too has a mother: ‘Why she’s pretending like this, is it a game I don’t know?’ He knows about ‘Baby Jesus’ but is sure that he belongs to TV, like Dora the Explorer.

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