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It lives inside the kinds of stories we find pleasurable or challenging and in the moments we fail to examine why.So how, then, to represent or smartly explore these dark waters of our broken and unnurturing world?Now that the novel has been adapted into a film, which is beautifully acted and directed, I am faced anew with that most frustrating of positions: being told that a cynical and dangerous story is in fact a progressive and radical one.
This visual technique is perhaps an attempt to voyeurism, but again simply results in producing the effect it thinks of itself as pushing back against, in large part because of the affect viewers are encouraged to experience in these moments: horror, confusion, sure, but above all, we’re stimulated to keep peering.
I guess another way to get at what I find upsetting here is to say that it’s depressing to find misogyny baked into not just the content but also into the very aesthetic structures of the novel and film. Hatred of women and mothers lives inside me, and it lives inside you.
And yet, the novel’s depiction of the mother/child bond — meant to be deeply empathetic to this bond’s importance but ultimately just reproductive of tired gendered messages about motherly sacrifice and childish narcissism — seems to get the wonders of coming into sociality entirely wrong.
Once outside of the Room, Jack must peel himself away from a Ma who can’t stop taking baths with him — he must cut the hair that feminized him and kept him tied to his mother like an umbilical cord.
For example, the novel’s first chapter ends with a deliberately unsettling novelistic scene featuring the five-year-old Jack breast-feeding.
That much of the story’s so-called complexity, nuance, and ambiguity stem from such pearl-clutching moments — oh, we realize, this space is both utopic and claustrophobic, enabling and crippling — should alarm.
This bond, and this space, has long been a subject of great literary fascination: it is alternately portrayed as our most sanctified cultural relationship (think every Hallmark Mother’s Day card) and our most gothic horror (think the slimy eggs in the movie ’s elaboration, this metaphor is more of the usual double-speak that structures our understandings of motherhood.
The room/womb extended set piece tracks our culture’s rose-tinted view of the mother/infant-child bond, while also allowing readers the satisfaction of judging the perversity of that bond when it (somehow, always) inches into the excessive: “Mothers, you are all-important … ” Things don’t get much better, however, when Ma and Jack escape their captivity and begin trying to reorient themselves toward one another, toward others, and toward the world itself.
But here, in its most vaunted formal accomplishment, is where I really go off the rails with this story.
The novel uses the limited perspective of a child to enact, basically, a striptease: the novel knows that are fascinated with women’s sexual abuse, but uses the child’s apparent innocence to allow us plausible cover for our staring. The film does away with the novel’s experiment in perspective, and so feels less grimy to me.