The literary equivalent to watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) or Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995) during our universal period of social isolation can be easily seen by re-engaging with narratives of confinement and imprisonment. We watched those movies upon their release because their stories seemed distant, outlandish, worst-case scenarios of an uncontrollably spreading virus and political leaders ill-equipped to contain it. We watch them now for clues as to what actions we might take to save our lives. Corridor image from
The actors were aided by all sorts of visual trickery between takes, the special effects and makeup wizards could apply more signs of sickness to their faces. For those of us hardened to horror movies, the graphic scenes of illness and disease easily dissolved from our minds after the films ended and we went on with our lives.
We know the literature about plagues and sickness. Its carefully plotted narratives are really metaphors about the unchecked rise of fascism, and the deadly contagious biological scourges are really diseases of the mind. Those are hard conclusions to dispute. The great literature of plagues and other deadly sicknesses has always worked (in the best hands) because it’s an evergreen topic. Confinement and imprisonment narratives can be a little harder to capture and even more difficult to appreciate in these pandemic days, especially in a time when so many still seem divided about the benefits of isolation and social distancing.
Emma Donoghue’s remarkable 2010 novel, Room conveys that the body can be imprisoned but fierce determination and a mother’s love will never fail the mind and spirit. E.L. Doctorow’s terrifying 2009 novel, Homer and Langley, a first-person fictionalized historical narrative based on the famous New York City reclusive hoarders, the Collyer brothers, showed that the greatest prison will always be one of our own making.
The prison of Room is an 11′ x 11′ storage space in which Ma (a 26-year-old woman) has been confined for over five years. She was raped and impregnated by her captor, Old Nick, a figure that enters Room at night, while the child (Jack) watches from the wardrobe where he hides. Old Nick is the malevolent benefactor, the provider of necessities and the embodiment of evil. Her son Jack, telling us this story, is turning five the moment we enter the narrative.
Ma has created a world for Jack in which everything is alive: blanket, cup, door wall, wardrobe, and more. She teaches Jack how to color, create art, interpret visions he sees on TV, and imagine he can connect with everything he’s shown. He’s led to understand that the moon and sun he sees through their skylight window will always be outside — he is not meant to be in the world that’s outside of Room. Early in the novel, Ma tells jack the truth:
Listen, What we see on TV is… it’s pictures of real things.
…How can TV be pictures of real things?
He can’t stop thinking that the safety and security of Room is not the entire world:
…Grass is TV and so is fire… Air’s real and water only in Bath and Sink… I want to shake Ma and ask her if Sea is real. Room is real for real, but maybe Outside is too only it’s got a cloak of invisibility… Outside has everything… I’m not there, though, me and Ma, we’re the only ones not there. Are we still real?
Ma prepares Jack for excape, and it’s as brutal and tense as a reader could expect. He’s able to escape nearly halfway through the novel, and at that point, focus shifts to recovery on the Outside as Jack and Ma try adjusting to a world that has changed. Ma was alive in it before she was confined to Room. Jack only knew the comforts, predictability, and limitations of Room, and it takes longer for him to assimilate.
Nothing is easy in Room as nothing is easy for any of us now, as COVID-19 forces many among us to self-isolate. Our homes are now refuges from which we cannot safely expect to escape for a long time. These days, the most understandable part of Room isn’t the relief when Jack and Ma escape their confinement but rather their fear as they enter a world in which they can never again really feel completely safe.
If the confinement, escape, and adaptation to the Outside is a perfectly balanced and understandable narrative that eerily reflects our current troubled times, E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley is an even darker relatable story. Neither Collyer brother is able to escape their self-made prison. Doctorow covers most of the 20th century in this brief first-person story of a man observing the many decades he and his brother are spending from within their cluttered home.
Langley comes back from World War I shell-shocked and increasingly unstable. Homer loses his sight and teaches piano to various women who come in and out of the house as domestic servants. Langley collects things and develops what he calls a “Theory of Replacements” and a project involving collecting newspapers:
Langley’s project consisted of counting and filing news stories according to category: invasions, wars, mass murders…a separate category for natural disasters…It was a huge enterprise and occupied him for several hours a day…He wanted to fix American life finally in one edition…[an]…eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need.
By the he late ’60s, the Collyer brothers are sheltering a “family” of hippies they’d befriended during a Central Park anti-war demonstration. The house was “…a labyrinth of hazardous pathways… newspaper bales… piles of equipment… guts of pianos, motors…” Homer finds himself as the guide for the house residents, “…the deviser of this human train that wound its way through the Collyer residence…” In the last few pages, Homer tells us that Langley believed “…everything alive was at war.”
We leave both brothers still in their home. The actual Collyer brothers died in1947, within weeks of each other, in their 60s Doctorow brings his Collyers from right before WWI to shortly after the Jonestown, Guyana Massacre of 1978, over 60 years of life happening outside the confines of their home. Here’s how Homer leaves us, in the last few hopeless pages:
For all practical purposes I am imprisoned. I am situated now just inside the doors of the drawing-room with a single path to the bath under the stairs.
Forced confinement and voluntary seclusion take on different forms, depending on our temperament and threshold level for pain and suffering. Those of us inclined toward solitary lives aren’t finding much difference between our routines before COVID-19 and our current daily activities. In Room, we are reminded that sometimes confinement is safer and more secure than the outside world. In Homer & Langley, we come to understand that sometimes the cluttered world of our interior will swallow us whole.
In these times of COVID-19, it’s hard to tell which is the preferred fate — confinement, or escape.