Why is symbolism so clumsy? Even when it’s appropriate, even when it isn’t “in your face,” and even when it’s insightful and adds to a story, why does it still feel awkward? Is it because we’re allergic to allegory or to “deep meaning” when reading novels that aren’t supposed to be “great literature”? Why does it make me want to groan and roll my eyes even when I keep thinking about how effective it is days afterward?
There are many moments of intrusive symbolism in Emma Donoghue’s Room. They all occur as straightforward observations in the voice of the five year old narrator Jack. Jack spent his entire first five years believing that the world consisted only of the 11-foot square shed where his mother has been held prisoner by “Old Nick” who abducted her when she was 19 and rapes her nightly. Jack begins the story telling us that his mother has just informed him that Room isn’t all there is, and the rest of the novel is his re-entry into “Outside” as he and his mother escape and have to face the world.
Now, the good news is that Room turns lurid voyeurism into an almost charming fable. For that alone, it’s worth reading, even if it’s not the kind of thing I’d usually pick up. (It was a book club suggestion.) And Jack’s innocent and confused voice immediately takes the edge off of the obvious trauma that everyone around him undergoes, including “Ma”’s family who had already mourned her and who still see her abductor in Jack. And the book really is a story about growing up rather than about trauma, which is what makes it interesting. That attitude also makes the reliance on heavy-handed intentional symbolism seem occasionally appropriate.
But…those moments still nagged me in irritating ways. For example, Jack sees an aquarium in the lobby of the hospital where they arrive after escaping. The uncomfortable discussion about why the fish can’t leave and why they’re kept in a box for people to look at…sure, we get it. But it also seems so clumsy, so obviously a moment where we’d really appreciate a bit more subtlety.
One sentence in particular made me stop reading and hand the book to my wife (we were reading it together). My oh-so-delicate literary sensibilities just couldn’t handle the obviousness. Right after Jack performs the main action of their heroic escape (a fun if stressful story), he drops down on the sidewalk and says:
I’m sitting on a line so there’s some of me in one square and some in another.
Duh. Square: Room. Leaving one square. About to enter another. Confusion. On the line, at the limit, etc. It’s a perfectly appropriate moment of “symbolism” that’s supposed to intensify the psychological and narrative moment. It’s the kind of thing that probably gets taught in intro MFA courses. And I hated it because it was one of those moments where it felt like Donoghue had broken the otherwise scared little boy’s voice that had just been frightened by his first experience of trees, a dog, even distances of more than 11 feet into something that was so obviously almost reflective rather than emotional. It was too precious and broke my suspension of disbelief, and I have to admit that I had been pretty wrapped up in making sure Jack got away from Old Nick in visceral page-turning fashion. I was done for the night.
But that sentence kept coming back to me. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more right it was. It was more than the other spotlights thrown on windows, doors, etc., that peppered the book. And in spite of it’s being so blatantly “symbolic” as to almost work against the story in the moment, as a symbol it was powerful: Jack’s story wasn’t a story about escape or freedom (although his mother’s might have been). Jack’s was about moving between rooms, one small, maternal, enclosed, and safe, and another that was confusing, suffocating him not in space but in overload of information, suddenly dealing with other people, etc. “Outside” really was just another square to Jack, and his particular story of coming into the world required that perspective, not of simple inside/outside imagery. So Jack sitting on a line between two squares was pretty much the perfect “symbol” of what’s at stake for him in this story.
All good. But then why was I so irritated when I identified it as a moment of literary layering? I was already pretty sure that I was getting was a “message” story, not a realistic novel; it wasn’t simply being upset at the return of disbelief. And it wasn’t simply a moment of bad writing or craftsmanship (although maybe there was some of that in those moments…blurring the seams might be more effective). I don’t even think it was quite a generic problem in the sense that, say, allegory advertises its literary artifice, but novels are supposed to be primarily narrative and merely suggest such things. Every high school kid gets what a symbol is even when they’re rooting for Piggy to get gruesomely murdered in Lord of the Flies. So why did I get my aesthetic feathers ruffled?
The only decent answer I can come up with is that maybe “symbol” in narrative is naturally an irritation. A symbol has to be something that goes against the grain, that literally means something it doesn’t mean: a square of concrete IS NOT a room. For a symbol to work, it has to both embrace that an erase it. An effective symbol has to balance the IS and IS NOT of representing a false apparent world (the story) and a true meaning (the “deep” stuff) in such a way that neither overwhelms the other. The most effective symbols then appear at once accidental and predestined, surprising but culminating, uncanny but miraculous. Maybe this one just veered a touch too much toward the planned set-piece, which made its appropriateness all the more bothersome for not being as much a part of the moment of Jack’s otherwise convincing voice.
Literature is weird. I get grumpy when the things I want to find in it make themselves too apparent.