THE ROOM INSIDE MY FATHER’S ROOM.
A good story is all about details, as any writer will surely tell you. Careful use of details is not the same thing as complexity, or prolixity, or rich language. There is certainly such a thing as too much detail, but there is always the risk that there is not enough detail either. And the risk of boring one’s reader is just one consequence of insufficient detail. Lack of detail results in flat characters, POV limitations, pacing issues, lack of conflict, and emotion flatness. But yes, lack of details’ most problematic consequence is the risk of boring the reader, which is basically a cardinal sin of storytelling.
I bring up the subject because this is one of the factors that makes Lincoln Michel’s “The Room Inside My Father’s Room” such a gem. On its own, stripped of its captivating physical and emotional details, the story would still be a fascinating allegory, a quirky metaphor for something or other, but it would also risk preaching to its reader, privileging the “message” over the reading experience. As it stands, the story is a funny, puzzling, and dark exploration of devolution–the ritual of the hand-me-down. The story will remind readers of Kafka and Borges and probably The Twilight Zone. And maybe the great prose poet Russell Edson, who did a lot of funny surrealist stuff involving everyday people in bizarre situations.
This story is a fascinating, multifaceted sort of allegory about things like civilization, inheritance, existence, learning, and tradition. I don’t really want to unpack the story’s significance too much–I’ll leave that to the reader–but I want to explore the elements that make this a vivid, engaging story rather than a straightforward parable.
Consider this section of the short story:
“I never asked to be born in that room,” I said. I glared at him with a son’s hate, and he seemed to shrink back down to my size, then smaller. Soon he collapsed into his chair.
“I did the best I could,” he said to himself, barely above a whisper. “No one can say differently.”
“Your best was shit,” I said without much force. He was already weeping into his plate of sausages.
Now, I’m going to strip away all the interesting details and let’s see how this bit of dialogue/action performs:
“I never asked to be born in that room,” I said. I glared at him. He sat down.
“I did the best I could,” he said. “No one can say differently.”
“Your best was insufficient,” I said. He was already weeping.
Missing from the abridged version are details that change the way characters speak, appear, feel, sit down, weep, act and react.
Which I suppose is the reason I’m not a fan of parables or didactic storytelling: the characters are either utterly devoid of interesting characteristics or they’re magnifications, caricatures based on one particular feature, as if a person’s entire essence can be captured in a single personality trait. Of course, the more complex we make a character, the less effective they are in furthering a singular agenda. After all, if a character has multiple layers, then their actions and consequences take on layers of meaning as well.
Which I suppose is what ultimately separates that most nebulous of storytelling categories–the Literary–from all those other Barnes & Noble sections. I know, some writers think Literary-ness is a measure of quality, but I think it has to do more with psychological and symbolic depth. Lots of literary novels suck, after all, and lots of genre-oriented works are phenomenal (and even literary in their own right; I could name tons of examples across genres).
I’ve digressed, and I want to come back to this story and the paternal nested-doll situation it creates through concentric architecture: we have the first-person protagonist, then we have his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather. Each character is quite different, just as each missing-a-corner domicile is wildly different (from small and empty to medium and austere to large and cluttered). And the characters exhibit different emotional responses and demeanors over the course of this brief story. What’s really cool are the ways in which the surreal architecture of their spaces influences their moods, demeanors, and overall state of existence. One character falls asleep, while another is too cramped to sleep. Another is weeping into his sausages, which demonstrates the character’s mixed situation of prosperity and suffering.
This is one weird story, sure, but it seems sort of timely as well. Everybody talks about the millennial generation and how its members are less likely to surpass their parents’ accomplishments (economically speaking) than the Baby Boomers or War-era folks. I don’t know if the author intends us to read this story as an economic satire or what.
I said I wasn’t going to analyze the story’s meaning, and here I go anyway. Sorry.
This is a cool, engaging read whether you impose meaning on it or not. It works both ways. Which is a pretty literary thing to do.