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The RoomThe Room by Hubert Selby Jr.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars/ 5 of 5 stars

WARNING: Contains explicit language/ gratuitous sexual violence/ torture scenes. Adults Only.

I have put off writing about this book for as long as I possibly could for different reasons. The first issues from a very genuine difficulty I have of expressing myself when I really like a book – an experience that, I am sorry to say, is becoming harder to come by. The other reason (which applies to this particular book) is that due to the way it’s written, I feel it deserves two separate reviews: one for story, and another detailing Selby’s own unusual ‘homegrown’ writing style. This is why I gave the novel two ratings; 3/5 for story and 5/5 for technique. Why only three for the story you ask? Well, sometimes people skip pages to get around what I call ‘authors waffle’. You get this in almost every book, including Pulitzer prize-winners. The other reason is because of extreme graphic violence; violence that is convincingly and almost lovingly written. Selby’s novel falls into the latter category.

He certainly has a way of getting inside the twisted mind of a convict and make a reader feel like an accomplice to all those terrible fantasies. While I’m not the type to shy away from violence, everyone has a limit, and I found myself being quite severely tested. As it goes, I am still debating as to whether it really was necessary to go as far as he did in some instances, and maybe it’s this ongoing debate that made me sit on the fence with my rating.

But my own pedantic shortcomings aside, I am still going to try to explain how I feel about this book.

At first glance, the premise is no different to other prison-based novels. A small-time criminal is jailed for a petty crime and begins to await his hearing. However, the similarities cease here, as Selby’s stance to imprisonment culminates around notions of ‘inaction’ rather than action. His approach is in the vein of intuitive story-telling, bordering on what might be called the writer’s version of ‘method acting’. This is definitely not a character-based plot, as the narrative is driven by the concept of thought and the ‘organic’ direction it may take in a setting severely limited in the psychological and physical sense. This makes Selby seem very unsympathetic towards his characters, yet like all good writers he knows that this kind of detachment is vital. It leaves him free to use his cast to the full cause of the story.

Having said this, what is the ‘organic’ direction of thought in a prison cell? Selbys answer to this is very clear, as he cultivates an intensely inbred narrative that continually reflects and refracts back into itself. A man in a six by four cell cannot go anywhere. His past is behind him, his present is without stimulation and his future is uncertain. The inertia and weight of waiting turns all actions to the depths of the psyche and what lies there. Like a plant that becomes stunted and pale through lack of sunlight, so does the protagonist, as he turns inward to stagnate in his own turmoil. Time is a torture as he populates his days with past memories and elaborate revenge fantasies embellished with all sorts of sexual and physical degradation.

‘Well, anyway, time has to pass. But sometimes its so goddamn long. Sometimes it just seems to drag and drag and weigh a ton. And hang on you like a monkey. Like its going to suck the blood out of you. Or squeeze your guts out. And sometimes it flies. Just flies. And is gone somewhere, somehow, before you know it was even here. As if time is only here to make you miserable. Thats the only reason for time.”

A great example of the mounting frustration and rage that grows throughout the narrative is illustrated in the form of a pimple. Selby returns to this symbol to indicate first annoyance, alarm and finally total internal destruction followed by resignation. At the end the prisoner finds his shameful release by eventually popping it. The emotional breakdown that follows is a great example of how resourceful a writer Selby is.

“He leaned closer and touched the red spot with a finger tip. The beginning of a pimple. He squeezed it, then lowered his hands. Why bother? Itll just bruise the skin. I/ll wait until it comes to a head… if it doesn’t just disappear first.”

Selby’s novel also brings up the concept of ‘think crime’, as all the grotesque things dreamed up by the prisoner puts the notion of guilt in a different perspective. The mind is a flexible thing, susceptible to impressions, but is the ‘thought’ of a terrible crime equal to the crime made manifest? Does thinking about it make you guilty? One could be forgiven at being shocked by the base examples of imaginary rape and torture; yet the quality of these daydreams are so vivid they give the impression of having happened on some scale,an imaginary sphere, which in this claustrophobic world is often more real than reality itself.

There is only one other aspect that surpasses the terror factor of the fantasies, and that is the awful realisation that man is capable of thinking awful things, and that if Selby could do it, so could we. The character; stripped as he is of identity, is still a human creation. In this abstraction of humanity, the reader finds a shocking alternative to notions of innocence. Throughout the novel the name of the protagonist is unknown and his crime is stated as a small offence. His mind however gives us the impression of a monster.

This begs the question, ‘how much is a person’s thoughts are oriented by their environment and how much by their innate capacity for evil? Maybe it is this underlying question that made Selby dedicate it ‘with love, to the thousands who remain nameless and know.’ The thousands of inmates, whose identities are either forgotten by time or erased by the prison regime; the thousands who know exactly where the mind goes when it is also closed off like a prison.

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