Locked Rooms: The Reader’s Shelf | June 15, 2012

Novels can tackle some of philosophy’s biggest questions: the nature of evil, the concept of free will, the mystery of consciousness. Few literary devices place such questions into as stark relief as the locked room‚ be that room a cell, basement, or attic or the mental space of claustrophobic fear and lack of options. As characters navigate the four walls of real or imagined prisons, all manner of reflections and reactions begin to unfold. The titles below feature locked rooms of one kind or another. Don’t be fooled by their engaging and gripping stories and their straightforward prose; these books examine the nature of human identity: what makes us who we are and the ways in which we think about ourselves.

Ali Smith’s There But For The (Anchor: Random. Jul. 2012. ISBN 9780307275240. pap. $15) is a droll fable about a man who locks himself in the upstairs bedroom of someone else’s house. His involuntary hosts, reluctant to break down the door, are puzzled, then exasperated, then desperate to be rid of him. Four narrators, each connected to the protagonist in a different way, carry the story to its conclusion. Which view of the situation is the truest? How are the characters changed? Readers looking for a witty and provocative satire that pokes fun at middle-class complacency and the anomie of modern life will find this novel delightful.

Paul Auster has been called one of our most spare, lucid, and elegant novelists by author Jonathan Lethem. Though Auster also writes poems and essays, he is best known for his loosely connected set of novels known as The New York Trilogy (Penguin. 1990. ISBN 9780140131550. pap. $16). The Locked Room is the third novel. And, yes, you will find a locked room here. But the story is about Fanshawe, a childhood friend of the unnamed narrator. Fanshawe seems to have disappeared but left instructions for his wife, Sophie, to give his unpublished manuscripts to the narrator, who has been appointed his literary executor. Reading through the material gives the narrator intriguing insight into Fanshawe’s life while gradually eroding his own stability.

In Walter Mosley’s spectacular locked-room variation, The Man in My Basement (Back Bay: Little, Brown. 2005. ISBN 9780316159319. pap. $14.99), the imprisonment is self-imposed. Charles Blakey, an African American man living in a gracious old house that has been in his family for generations, is down on his luck. He’s been fired from his job and can’t find another, he’s run out of money and can’t pay the mortgage, he’s drinking too much and feeling sorry for himself. Enter Anniston Bennet, an eccentric white man who offers $50,000 to rent space in Blakey’s basement and proceeds to build himself a prison cell. The interaction between these two men heats up very quickly, shedding light on their inner demons.

In Max Frisch’s chilling tour de force, Man in the Holocene (Dalkey Archive. 2007. ISBN 9781564784667. pap. $12.50. out of stock but still available), elderly Herr Geiser, who lives alone in his mountain house, takes us into a dark exploration of what can be known. Trapped by relentless storms, Herr Geiser fears landslides that might crush his house. As Herr Geiser’s fears become increasingly irrational, the reader understands that he is fighting the erosion of his aging mind. He is everyman struggling against impossible odds to preserve his intellect and identity.

The locked room in Emma Donoghue’s Room (Back Bay: Little, Brown. 2011. ISBN 9780316098328. pap. $14.99) is the garden shed where a young woman and her five-year-old son, Jack, are held captive. To Jack, who knows nothing of the outside world, their isolation seems normal. Room is a comfortable home where he was born, where he and his mother eat, sleep, play, and learn. At night, when the man he calls Old Nick comes to see his mother, Jack hides in a wardrobe. Though the space is equipped with a TV, a kitchenette, and a bathroom, it is a living nightmare for Jack’s mother, who was abducted at the age of 17 from a college campus. Tension builds as readers see, through Jack’s innocent eyes, his mother’s increasing desperation. Jack is incredulous when she begins to plot their escape.

And, finally, there is the classic and groundbreaking psychological The Yellow Wall-Paper (Oxford Univ. 2009. ISBN 9780199538843. pap. $12.95) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the feminist utopian novel Herland. Written as a journal, it is the horrifying account of a woman whose physician husband has confined her to their upstairs bedroom as a rest cure for what he calls nervous depression and a slight hysterical tendency. Though forbidden to write, the unnamed narrator’s hidden journal reveals the painful deterioration of her mental state as she sinks deeper into depression and then into madness.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net