As often happens with essay collections (particularly ones read for the writer’s personality rather than his or her topics), Working The Room: Essays and Reviews 1999-2010 is a very mixed bag. Bits of it are funny, bits of it are informative, bits of it are almost moving, but a few bits a little annoying.
I like the writing of Geoff Dyer. I’ve read many of his books, yet with this one I’ve been forced to become aware of the fact that I might not actually like him in real life. And, despite sharing many of his interests, he and I are hugely, widely and immensely different at the core of our beings.
Working The Room is ordered thematically, rather than chronologically, and it contains introductions to classic novels, journalist articles, reviews of books and exhibitions, loose travel writing, autobiographical material and essays on record labels, on jazz, on war reporting, on doughnuts, on the Olympics, on Paris Fashion week and one, the best in the collection, on the unarguable eroticism of hotel rooms.*
On photography, a medium I like but know very little about, he is informative and engaging. Essays on photography take up the first quarter of Working the Room, which I found tiresome for a bit, until by the sixth or seventh I’d learnt enough to understand his frames of reference.** From there, the book spins into a bit about other visual artforms (sculpture, painting), before spending a while talking about literature. I enjoyed this a little more, obviously, but the collection really picked up when Dyer started writing about jazz.
I like jazz, I really like jazz. I’m a big fan of jazz. But I don’t know very much about contemporary jazz, but knew enough to understand the excitement and the opportunity offered by the recent music Dyer describes. His enthusiasm enthused me. From there he goes on to talk about bigger, wider, issues, then looks, in detail, at his own life. Elements of this final section were enjoyable – particularly the essay about his love of routine, ‘Otherwise Known as the Human Condition’, his piece on the moments of his life where he was closest to ruination***, ‘Something Didn’t Happen’ and a surprisingly sweet text about his wife, ‘Of Course’ – but it is here where Dyer’s quirks started to grate.
Certain aspects of his behaviour, his certainty in the truth of his opinions****, his alarmingly snobbish tone when talking about his working class background, his (probably) faux laziness (because, given the volume of books he’s produced, he clearly can’t be as fucking lazy ALL the time as he implies he is), his hippieish-anti-establishment pose coupled with gushing praise of his entrance into the establishment via Oxford University and his continued place within it, attested to by the volume and variety of publications these essays originally appeared in.
But, I don’t know, maybe I just read this book too slowly. And I’ve had a tiring week. And I just got back from a holiday. And I’ve just finished an MA. And-
I suppose, perhaps, that I tired of Dyer, here, for the very reason that I enjoy his non-fiction books, which is the presence of his slightly dickish personality. As an amusing foil to an impassioned and articulate exploration of a different topic, Dyer the man is a pleasure to have appear in front of you in texts such as Out of Sheer Rage and Another Great Day at Sea. But a ten page essay about little more than Dyer himself did, for me, drag. His essay on Tender Is The Night, for example, effortlessly combines literary insight with anecdotes of Dyer’s partyish lifestyle. And that works. That works excellently.
When on point, Dyer is a joy to read, and there are essays in here that made me smile and laugh and several that taught me things. Some of them, though, I didn’t like as much as others. And I suppose that, alas, is my point.
Some enjoyable writing here. I wouldn’t avoid it.
* I have tried to find this essay online, but though it was originally published on nerve.com, it appears to have since been removed. These brief bit of research, though, led me to the disappointing discovery that almost every other review of Working the Room (published as Otherwise Known as the Human Condition in the United States) picks ‘Sex and Hotels’ as the highlight too. What is the point of me?
**One of Dyer’s books I haven’t read is all about photography. I will try to locate a copy soon.
*** i.e. behaviour that could have got him expelled from Oxford University, driving on the wrong side of a road by mistake and accidentally smuggling skunk through a US airport.
**** Is this, though, a normal thing? Am I rare for not thinking that the things I think are irrefutable?
Donoghue navigates beautifully around these limitations. Jack’s voice is one of the pure triumphs of the novel: in him, she has invented a child narrator who is one of the most engaging in years — his voice so pervasive I could hear him chatting away during the day when I wasn’t reading the book. Donoghue rearranges language to evoke the sweetness of a child’s learning without making him coy or overly darling; Jack is lovable simply because he is lovable. Through dialogue and smartly crafted hints of eavesdropping, Donoghue fills us in on Jack’s world without heavy hands or clunky exposition. The reader learns as Jack learns, and often we learn more than he can yet grasp, but as with most books narrated by children, the gap between his understanding and ours is a territory of emotional power.
Donoghue’s ingenuity also soars as she animates the novel’s physical space through her characters’ rituals: they run around a homemade track; watch TV, but not too much, because “it rots our brains”; string eggshells together with a needle to make a kind of snake. Toys and books are treated like gold. A lollipop is a revelation.
Although I hate to reveal plot points, some are necessary to discuss the book, and early on, the story reveals that Room is actually a prison, with a villain holding the key, and that Ma (as Jack calls his mother) is being kept against her will. Fierce claustrophobia sets in — what had seemed an odd mother-child monastery is now Rapunzel’s tower or Anne Frank’s annex or a story from the news about a stolen child living in a hidden compound. Jack, interestingly, does not feel trapped; that the two live in Room against his mother’s will is not something the son knows right away, and this contrast creates the major fissures and complexities in the book: Room is both a jail and a haven.
Once it is known that Ma doesn’t want to be there, the careful, painstakingly constructed framework of the characters’ days takes on a new tenor. That Ma can engage and interest a lively, bright boy while enduring the despair of their situation turns her into a heroic figure. When, later in the book, someone mentions how “zeitgeisty” it is, in our thing-ridden times, to make do on so little, Ma is horrified, and we are horrified, yet we are riveted by her manner of coping — in the same way we’re riveted by Anne Frank’s bravery — and amazed by her capacity for adaptation.
Jack doesn’t need to adapt; this is his norm. Room functions like a big womb, the space in many ways a true extension of a mother’s body, a limited area of total closeness and care. It is a child’s heaven for a time and, were he to grow older there, would be his nightmare. At 5, Jack is somewhat delayed developmentally, still living wholly in the unity he feels with his mother. “Maybe I’m a human,” he thinks, “but I’m a me-and-Ma as well.”
Which brings up the one part I struggled with a bit. Very early on, we see that Ma breast-feeds her son. The book opens on his birthday, and she tries, halfheartedly, to wean him, but he loves this intimate connection to his mother’s body as much as he loves all the walls and objects and routines of Room. There’s a flicker of unease in the reader here — and it’s a good and interesting flicker. Room is a sanctuary for Jack, but where are the lines, the boundaries between mother and son? When does security go too far?
Eventually the book takes a turn; I will note only that more characters enter, and that the world extends beyond its original setting. The development is thrilling and at moments palm-sweatingly harrowing. But that darker flicker of unease around the breast-feeding grows smaller. When Ma is questioned about it a couple of times, she turns on her interrogators with anger. She’s a sympathetic figure, and her choices, in her situation, are believable, even understandable, but by shaming the questioners, Donoghue also cuts off a reader who may have similar wonderings. I trusted and valued that flicker of unease, and I wanted to feel it play out more, to see Donoghue go deeper into the mucky, messy territory of growth. When Ma takes an action that ends up resolving some of these questions, I found her choice surprising, even puzzling; it just didn’t quite address this issue, which was not about the breast-feeding concretely, but more about breast-feeding as an effective symbol for that initial, primal bond between mother and child, a bond that has to evolve over time. The internal claustrophobia, the blurry and often complicated area between closeness and autonomy, is acknowledged but moved through quickly, in favor of managing the joys and terrors of the outside world.
There’s a lot to manage — the external, vivid, social world is a huge and gratifying resource here, and Jack’s eyes remake the familiar. It is invigorating, watching him learn, and the way Donoghue reveals the consequences of Room through her attention to detail is tremendous. But in a world where bed is Bed and outside is Outside, I thought anxiety might be Anxiety, and somewhat harder to resolve. Part of Jack’s appeal is that heightened kidness in him, and if his wonder is 10 times larger, so might have been the resolutions of his internal struggles and regressions.
But these are objections based on the very high standards set by the beauty of the book. On the whole, Donoghue goes the distance with “Room,” and she brings her story to a powerful close that feels exactly right. This is a truly memorable novel, one that can be read through myriad lenses — psychological, sociological, political. It presents an utterly unique way to talk about love, all the while giving us a fresh, expansive eye on the world in which we live.