The Room, by Hubert Selby. (London: Marion Boyars, 1989.)
Book reviews by Rob Couteau
The Bloomsbury Review,
May / June 1990 (CO: Denver)
Harry White, also known as “Harry the lover,” is a bright young executive at the Lancet Corporation. His desire for the “promotions and the money, property and prestige” lead him to cautiously place his love life on hold, fearful that the bizarre intensity of his passions will interfere with his striving for success. At first he limits himself to weekend assignations, but after a year of such “good behavior” he becomes increasingly distracted at work, and he feels “a tension building up in his body.” Finally, Harry rushes through his lunch so that he can spend the remainder of the hour walking the streets, “unaware that he inevitably would stroll behind this broad or that one until it was time to go back to the office.”
Soon, he finds it difficult to return to the office on time. He’s overcome by an impulse that he can neither understand nor control. His wandering leads to a number of encounters that are marked by such ferocity, cruelty, and deceit that they border on the inhuman. Only his boss’s belief in Harry’s business potential–expressed through a series of threats and incentives–serves to curb such dangerous behavior.
Much of The Demon reads like a Pavlovian odyssey in which a man is controlled through promises of rewards that appeal for a while but then are no longer enough: the demon of other instincts–darker, more passionate fruits–breaks into consciousness and redirects it to a haunted (and often incomprehensible) terrain. It’s not only an unbounded sexuality that threatens Harry with psychic dismemberment; he’s also driven to attain a perfect (yet sterile) professional “success.” Although his inability to achieve a more balanced state of emotional well-being continues to disturb him, ultimately he’s drawn only by emotions of the lowest common denominator: narcissistic sexuality; the thrill of petty thievery; and, finally, the fantasy of taking a life.
Harry’s pain is the pain of modern man:
In every superbly constructed line of Selby’s shockingly brilliant prose, a gristly irony informs us not only of hopelessness but of how, when things have become so hopeless, they must go even more wrong before they may be righted. Selby doesn’t advocate brutality so much as portray it; he records the violence of contemporary life. Yet he seems to hint, too, at something within man that clamors for transcendence of our existential condition.
Perhaps that’s hard to see in a “typical” Selby sentence, such as: “He could feel the sooty grayness crawl under his skin as he looked at the scummy walls and floor, and felt the gritty sheets as their foul stench reamed his nostrils.” Yet, the authorial presence that recognizes such ugliness (through the character of Harry) does so in such a pointed manner only when there’s an implicit yearning for something beyond that gross, mundane realty. Perhaps, that’s what’s most shocking in Selby: his ability to inform the reader of a tender vision lurking beneath the prose, and this tenderness is the very thing proclaiming–in such harsh and brilliant tones–the abject condition of our world.
Indeed, the key to the book is found here, where Harry muses: “But the inner man knew that when you take something away that a life is dependent upon, you must replace it with something of value.” That statement could easily apply to Harry’s inability to creatively reimagine his life. Yet everything that might lead to a harmonious “life fully lived” has been aborted from the start. When Harry cannot find contentment in the lifestyle of the Lancet Corporation, his imagination leads him to cruel, vicious emotional entanglements. In the quote above, what was taken away was his desire to steal; the replacement was an appetite for murder.
Unable to commune with his demon, Harry is made one with it: “It was as if his voice was coming through a tunnel and there was a stone coldness in the sound of his voice.” At the end of his ordeal, he feels only the “numbness and alienation that allowed him to do what he had to do ... That numbness ... Deadness.”
While Harry is at least tossed back and forth between worlds, the nameless criminal in The Room sits alone in a remand cell, scheming and dreaming a continual fantasy of revenge and retribution. For nearly 300 pages, a man stews in his own bestial juices, and we are privy to his every affliction.
Here Selby portrays the most desolate and desperate of men: one whose inferiority is compensated by a series of brutal domination fantasies. Fabrications such as an ingenious self-defense in a courtroom–after which he’s followed by reporters, is interviewed, and then testifies at a Congressional hearing (in which he plays a leading role)–are interspersed with harrowing scenes of childhood victimization, humiliation, and abuse. The tale unfolds with Selby’s impeccable artistry of the obscene, using the most vulgar rhythms of argot with a musical sensitivity and empathic awareness of the downtrodden and forgotten in society.
The extreme fluctuation between states of inferiority and superiority is a major theme in this portrayal, and the author doesn’t flinch from the use of any subject that can be utilized to drive home the point. Imagining himself as a sadistic trainer of dogs, the protagonist scrapes their paws clean with a wire brush, wondering “how long it would be before he could see a bit of bone thrusting itself through the mangled flesh.” As a result of his obsession, the “animals screamed and yelled until, with constant and considerate lashings, they learned to howl and yelp with great canine artistry.” He confronts his own tortured self and describes his misery and agony in similar detail:
While the trajectory of Harry White’s plight is a broader one–rising to higher success; plummeting to more miserable depths–the protagonist of The Room is more pitiful, his pain and terror more human. Rather than succumbing to the numbness of a demonic possession, he’s simply left to ponder the futility of life:
His prurient imaginings and lurid, sadistic dreams compensate for his browbeaten nature:
Reading The Room is a compelling yet painful experience, requiring in the reader an ability to confront stark portrayals of the human condition.
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