Sunday, November 10, 2013

Emma Donoghue, Room (2010)

Donoghue, Emma, Room, HarperCollins Canada, September 2010
_____________, Room, Picador, 2011 (my edition, pictured top right)

Room at Goodreads
Room at IBList

Rating: 8/10

I began this novel knowing nothing of its plot, only that it was narrated by a five year-old. Though I understood early what was transpiring, I would recommend that readers interested in Room avoid reviews and discussion and approach the novel blindly. For me, at least, it was a great experience. Having opened with this statement, however, I warn you that my approach to reviewing the novel necessitates spoilers. I will however write it with the assumption that readers have read the book, and thereby not bother giving back-story or plot descriptions.

Trapped in their small square room, Ma and Jack experience two separate realities. To five year-old Jack ROOM is his entire universe, and the universe of that room is experienced as another four-letter word, WOMB. To Jack the room is the safest possible place. He is linked twenty-four hours to his Ma and the world she has designed for him. In their room Jack is secure, happy, enclosed in a kind of prenatal state he does not wish to relinquish. It's as though the umbilical cord were still attached, and he is being fed all he requires for healthy development. Ma on the other hand experiences Room as a contrary four-letter word: JAIL. To her this is a prison where captor "Old Nick" has held her for seven years, given her the bare minimum to survive while regularly raping her. Jack and Ma, as tightly bound as they are, are ironically experiencing two separate realities. While Ma hopes only for release, Jack has difficulty in understanding why she would desire so desperately to leave such a comfortable, safe environment.

Their captor "Old Nick" also acts as the embodiment of each of their experiences. To Jack he is Saint Nicholas, as in Santa Claus, a semi-real being who brings them sundaytreat; a special requested item each Sunday. To Ma he is very much "Old Nick" in its form as a nickname for the devil, a purely evil entity driven by a demonic nature. Jack experiences Nick as a kind of benevolent yet odd stranger, while to Ma he is a monster.

When in the outside world, notions of four letters are dropped, as are any kind of consistency, as we experience the world as a chaotic jumble. While Ma withdraws from the world, Jack is reluctantly enmeshed within its hyper-reality. Donoghue makes it a point to have Jack innocently wonder whether the world is in fact real. His existential crisis is acute despite his age, with the world having turned upside down. Hamlet experienced a traumatic reality reversal, yet Jack copes without having to stage plays and getting his mother poisoned.

The plot point I find troubling is Ma's attempted suicide. With what she has gone through for seven years, five while protecting Jack, it isn't feasible that she would make such an attempt. This event, however, is necessitated by plot, as Jack needs to be on his own in order to gain his solo experiences and eventual acceptance of the new world. In light of its need and the difficulty in achieving it, this criticism is fairly minor.

On an irrelevant side-note:

Since becoming a father eleven months ago, I have read three novels dealing with children in tragic settings, the other two being Dan Simmons's Song of Kali and Cormac McCarthy's The Road (not to mention other works involving children in less than desirable circumstances, such as the graphic novel Crossed by Garth Ellis and Jacen Burrows, also published in 2010, and more recently Joyce Carol Oates's intense novella "The Corn Maiden" from 2005). A friend and horror fan with a four year-old tells me he cannot read anything featuring children in threatening circumstances, not since the birth of his son. When my son was a newborn I sat rocking him while he slept and read Song of Kali aloud, despite the novel featuring a kidnapped newborn. Yet there is something more disturbing in the child's circumstance in Room than in the other works, and I believe that, though the circumstance themselves in The Road are as extreme, there are challenging notions of parenthood that to me were more thought-provoking. In McCarthy's novel focus on survival is constant and involves a good deal of improvisation, while in Donoghue's novel the focus is primarily on child-rearing.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Shimmer Number 17

Tobler, Catherine E., Shimmer Number Seventeen, Salt Lake City: Shimmerzine Press, September 2013

Shimmer website
Shimmer 17 at Goodreads

Overall rating: 6/10

With Shimmer's latest, expect the usual shimmery fiction: fantasies with quiet, strong prose, a positive and often sentimental approach to a varied set of ideas. While Shimmer is consistent with its style and good quality writing, as well as with its authors, personally I feel the zine can do with a little noise, some straightforward, less poetically abstract imagery, and often more subtle and ambiguous approaches to its varied ideas. I would also like to see some longer stories included, but that's for personal taste, not general aesthetics.

Shimmer Seventeen features a little sci-fi, some nice ghosts, as well as more than one second-person narration, several unsympathetic mothers and three Canadians, all tossed to the far-end of the collection. My favourites are those by Alex Dally MacFarlane, Yarrow Paisley and Kim Neville.

The Mostly True Adventures of Assman & Foxy by Katherine Sparrow     6/10
Two women attempt to escape their lives by taking a road trip in search of a travelling freak circus. A bittersweet story that works despite the Thelma and Louise pair being so distant from the narrative and reader.

How Bunny Came to Be by A.C. Wise     5/10
Lifeguard Phillip Howard Craft suffers a traumatic experience involving a tentacled sea creature and the preventable death of a man and his dog on the beach. Scarred and in existential crisis, Craft changes his name to Bunny and scours the beach in search of his foe. The story makes obvious allusions to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, most obviously via our protagonist's name and the Cthulhu tentacles. Wise is the author of "Tasting of the Sea" from Shimmer 16.

The Moon Bears by Sarah Brooks     6/10
A town has become famous for its moon bears: docile and dream-like white bears that appear randomly throughout the town. Lives change, and the town and its residents undergo an organic transformation. I quite liked this surreal story, another that challenges the stagnant nature of modern life.

Sincerely, Your Psychic by Helena Bell     5/10
A series of correspondence from a psychic to a man, focusing on his failing relationship with his wife and the daughter he gave up for adoption years ago. A good build-up and a promising story that falls short in its final sequence. Bell is the author of the better "In Light of Recent Events I Have Reconsidered the Wisdom of Your Space Elevator" from Shimmer 16.

Out They Come by Alex Dally MacFarlane     7/10
What does the fox Say? In reality, being part of the canid family, foxes bark. The foxes in "Out They Come," however, are utterly silent. Like the voiceless, victimized protagonist Stey who lives in a shack in a town and vomits foxes who take vengeance on those who have bullied her in the past, or were aware of the bullying and did not care. I liked this story more than I thought I would after the first page or two. Protagonist Stey (a stey is the steep portion of a hill, but I think that's only a coincidence), is silent and passive, and as the townsfolk begin hunting her foxes, she becomes vengeful and even a little bloodthirsty. Not great therapy and the bloody vengeance verging on becoming out of control weakens my sympathy for Stey, but I like the story nonetheless. I suppose such is the consequence of being mean to the meek.

Love in the Time of Vivisection by Sunny Moraine     4/10
A woman narrates through her meticulous vivisection. Metaphor for a failed romance? Not my thing; the narrative is too abstract and the voice too calm, as though recounting something in the distant past which the recounter has growing bored of.

Fishing by Lavie Tidhar     5/10
A dreamy sketch of a man fishing through his window in Laos. Not a story but a well written sketch.

98 Ianthe by Robert N. Lee     5/10
A science fiction story among fantasies, "98 Ianthe" is an asteroid and a band, as well as a second person story about the temporariness and the permanence of music. It's also about conscience and perception. Some nice cynicism from an aggressive narrator breaks up the similarities among the other narratives, unfortunately it also usurps story.

The Desire of All Things by Jordan Taylor     5/10
A young adept thief promises to steal her older sister's boyfriend back from the forest faeries. Interesting that the faerie queen is willing to use the boy as the wager for the competition, since he was already in her keep, thereby having nothing to gain by taking on our little heroine. Otherwise a clear straightforward read, also breaking the all-too consistent tone of the magazine.

The Metaphor of the Lakes by Yarrow Paisley     7/10
The ghost of a girl and her brother, now a cat, live in the house of Mr. Menders and Mr. Scatt. A highly enjoyable tale (tail) with refreshingly no straightforward explanations. Certainly the most entertaining story in Shimmer 17.

Romeo and Meatbox by Alex Wilson     5/10
A theatre skit featuring the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliette, only with Romeo as a brain-craving zombie. Conscious of Shakespeare, we have Signet editions formatting and attention to wordplay, though not enough to make it truly worthwhile. And again the male lover looks upon the woman as a mere object. Even in death we do not change.

Like Feather, Like Bone by Kristi DeMeester     6/10
Having lost her son and husband, a woman meets a young girl feasting on a bird, and succumbs to a symbolic death. Effective little story.

Girl, With Coin by Damien Angelica Walters     6/10
Olivia suffers from a rare condition that prevents her from feeling physical pain, making life quite dangerous. She grew up with an uncaring mother, and has grown into a successful body artist, revealing her condition to the public via Crucifixion and other painless stunts, while internally she suffers from having been abandoned by ma. Despite the narrator feeling a little too sorry for herself at times, I did like this piece which comes across as emotionally real.

River, Dreaming by Silvia Moreno Garcia     5/10
Narrator searches for her lover in a river of ghosts.

The Fairy Godmother by Kim Neville     7/10
The fairy godmother is made all-too human, with excellent results. We are treated to the difficulties in the life of someone who can materialize just about anything. Enjoyable and even touching.

We Were Never Alone in Space by Carmen Maria Machado     6/10
Narrative moves backwards as the reader, through the life of Adelaide, learns about the nature of birth and death, and how it is all connected to Mars. A surprisingly good read. (I snuck the word "surprisingly" in there since the opening did not grab me.)

The Herdsmen of the Dead by Ada Hoffman     5/10
Second person is instructed through the valley of dead. Or perhaps across the river Styx, seeking the herdsman and his daughter, instructions narrated by his wife. Interesting, but I would have liked the story more had it been less poetic: when giving instructions you want to be as clear as possible, not to confuse, particularly when the instructions receiver is only half there to begin with. Reminds me of Tom Waits's excellent "Potter's Field."

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