The novel The Room by Andreas Maier got me thinking about the relationship of authors to readers, specifically about the amount of effort that the audience is expected to make when engaging with a piece of art. Samuel Butler was fairly unequivocal on this matter:
“I should like to like Schumann’s music better than I do; I daresay I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all.”
Butler seems to be saying that the artist has a responsibility to make the audience’s job as effortless as possible, that an audience shouldn’t have to labour for its enjoyment. But there are, of course, plenty of books that demand a great deal of effort from the reader – books like Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, or Infinite Jest. And when we consider the amount of intellectual labour that went into such books, then shouldn’t the onus be on the reader to make up the effort deficit by fostering a deeper understanding of the novel than a cursory read-through affords?
Yes, would be my short answer. However, despite being only 190 pages long, The Room tested my adherence to this ideal. The novel sets itself a difficult task. The author classifies the book as fictional biography and chooses as his subject his Uncle J. J is inauspicious, unable to be classified as a protagonist, eclipsed in almost every scene the author writes. He’s overshadowed either by other people or the pitiless mocking prose of the author. He’s an everyman that leads a distinctly unremarkable life: going to work, dismantling machinery in his garage, drinking, stinking, and existing:
During most of the time I spent there with my grandmother when I was a child, he would be sleeping, and then the whole house would stink. If he was out, which meant lugging packages around in Frankfurt, the smell would linger on regardless. The house essentially reeked of J’s silage-like stench for years. It started back when I was eight or nine years old, because he still washed himself relatively often before that. Even today, my nostrils remind me of J whenever I go down into the cellar, his territory, at the Uhlandstrasse house.
In short, he’s not the typical subject of a biography. Why he’s of interest to the author is fairly understandable: Maier now occupies Uncle J’s old room (‘Today it’s my study. I’ve always written novels in there…’) and finds himself thinking about the man. It’s a daydream that’s familiar to anyone who sits in a relative’s abandoned habitat, wondering what went on between the walls. It’s the madeleine moment that sends you tumbling further back not into your own life, but into someone else’s. I’m sympathetic to this kind of personal investigation, but I’m unsure that it merits sharing with other people.
Other aspects of the writing challenged my patience. Tedious, lengthy descriptions of mundane actions – buying meat, waiting at traffic lights – meant that I was often tempted to skip entire sections. Details were repeated for no clear reason. Over the course of ten pages, I was reminded three times that the car Uncle J drives is Nazi/SA/fascist brown. Similarly irksome was the repetitive nature of some paragraphs. Consider:
The Variant had been half of [J’s] life, and even today I can’t picture my uncle without it. I’m still utterly convinced… that the VW Variant made my uncle J a happy man. To this day, the two are inextricably linked in my mind, the man who was filled with longing and the car that was laden with longing, and whenever I see an old Variant (there are still a few of them around), I think of J, and whenever I think of think of J, the Variant comes to mind. A mental association that will last an eternity.
It’s amusing to consider that each clause about J and the Variant is a tiny variant on those preceding, but what do we actually learn?
The overwrought unremarkable scenes and seemingly pointless repetition reinforced my conviction that the novel was badly edited. I started to suspect that Maier really had just sat down at Uncle J’s desk and hashed out a personal reflection without giving much thought to his audience. I fought this feeling all the way through the book. I kept reminding myself that the author had worked hard to write a novel and that I should work hard at reading it. Perhaps I keep being reminded that the car is brown because that’s a solid detail, and the author is desperately trying to cling on to these solid details as he postulates and imagines his way into his Uncle’s life. Perhaps the tumbling and looping sentences like the one quoted above are meant to mirror the way memory works–a stream of consciousness technique. Or maybe there are subtleties in the original German that are lost in translation (apologies, Jamie L Searle). Ultimately, perhaps it’s noble to describe at such length the unremarkable deeds of an unremarkable man, and maybe it’s a testament to the author’s love for his Uncle that he refuses to use fictional license to embellish, determined to see Uncle J just as he was.
At this point, I suffered a bad case of “it’s not you, it’s me.” I started to worry that maybe I just wasn’t getting it. Whenever I feel like this, I look for other online reviews of the work I’m reading. Not to crib off other reviewers, but simply to see what they made of the book. If their review is positive, I might be able to find the key that lets me open the door behind which all the joys of the novel are locked. Lee Monks from The Mookse and the Gripes had a radically different reading experience to me, stating that the book is about ‘a comic sensibility borne out of deep disquiet…really it’s about a means of coping with the abundant restlessness by indubitably confirming your own history.’ He also goes as far as to call The Room ‘a truly brilliant, innovative piece of work, at the very least unmissable.’ Specifically, Monks has high praise for Maier’s humour and his refusal to become nostalgic in his reminiscences. As for the humourous aspect, I think Monks and I are probably irreconcilable. I could imagine us sitting in the cinema together, and whilst one of us laughs wildly at a certain scene, the other looks on in puzzlement.
In the book’s defence, there are moments when Maier writes poignantly. Here is his response to the building of the Autobahn near his town:
Now we are at the centre of the world, and everyone celebrated, and the newspapers celebrated too. A new world. Wherever they built these Autobahns, everyone always suddenly thought they were at the centre of the world, just because the whole world was driving past them. Yet when it came down to it, the whole world was driving past everyone else too.
And there are times too when we feel truly sorry for Uncle J, a character frequently described as an “idiot” and teased by Maier and his brother:
His longing to get closer to things just dismantled everything instead. Whatever he held in his hands fell apart.
And I suppose that last couple of lines might work as Maier’s description of himself, an author who is trying to get closer to his Uncle, the room, the house, the town. Words seem to offer this opportunity to get closer:
And now, here in this room, I have to try put everything back in its place using my own words. […] Everything is there but no longer there. And now I’m laying it to rest with my words.
But whilst this might be cathartic or significant for Maier it’s much more difficult to work out what the reader gleans from this exploration. J might be ‘the beginning that everything stems from’ for his nephew, but for anyone without this familial and historical investment, it is very difficult to be engaged by his story.
The Room was published by Frisch & Co. last summer.
Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Edinburgh, producing short fiction and reviews for various publications. Along with his partner he runs The Rookery in The Bookery, a website dedicated to the review of translated fiction.