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Exceptional Existences: Room

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This chapter continues the analysis of exceptional sex in contemporary fiction through an exploration of Emma Donoghue’s Room. Focusing on the worldview of five-year-old Jack, this final chapter explores the text’s portrayal of spatiotemporal indetermination, the complex circulation of norms and exceptions and bestial, exceptional sex. It examines Agamben’s claim that the exception has become the norm, the biopolitics of suicide and a child’s understanding and implementation of exceptional circumstances. Rather than conclude this present study, this chapter opens it up, with the Coda offering further textual exceptionalities. In particular, the Coda explores the threshold positionality and exceptional textual existence of literary characters.


  • Sexual Abuse
  • Birth Registration
  • Alarm Clock
  • Bare Life
  • Temporal Recalibration

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  • DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-48589-2_5
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  1. 1.

    Donoghue discusses the convoluted relationship between Room and similar contemporary ‘real-life’ scenarios in her 2012 interview with Tom Ue, explaining:

    From the Fritzl case I took only the basic notion of an imprisoned woman raising her rapist’s child as happily as possible: an extraordinary act of motherhood. I deliberately set Room in America, in a garden shed rather than an underground dungeon, and removed the incest element, to make Ma’s story unlike Elizabeth Fritzl’s. Then, after the novel was written, Jaycee Dugard and her children were discovered in America in a garden shed… because sometimes it’s life that imitates art. (Donoghue and Ue, p. 102)

  2. 2.

    In 3,096 Days (2010), Natascha Kampusch discusses at length the intensified significance time took on during her captivity, explaining how, in a way dissimilar to Ma’s initial experience, knowing the time for her was essential: ‘the first things I asked for were a calendar and an alarm clock. I was trapped in a time warp where the kidnapper alone was the master of time. The hours and minutes blurred into a thick mass that weighed dully on everything’ (p. 80). Throughout this exploration of time, Kampusch also points to the important relationship between time and a sense of being, explaining, for instance, how ‘measuring time … is probably the most important anchor you can have in a world in which you run the risk of otherwise simply dissolving. The calendar helped me to regain a modicum of orientation’ (pp. 80–1). For Kampusch, the presence of time in her small room, translated as it was for her by and into the mechanics of the clock, was ultimately a way to break through her isolated existence: ‘with every tick-tock that alarm clock proved to me that time had not come to a standstill and the earth had continued to turn. In stasis, without any sense of time or space, the alarm clock was my ticking connection to the real world outside’ (p. 81).

  3. 3.

    In her essay ‘Plato’s Cave Revisited: Epistemology, Perception and Romantic Childhood in Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010)’, Sandra Dinter insightfully discusses Jack’s spatial difficulties in terms of grammar, linguistics, and metaphysics, arguing: ‘the general absence of definite and indefinite articles in Jack’s language indicates for many objects in Room, and in fact Room itself, Jack has neither acquired a proper system that distinguishes between types and tokens nor a critical difference between an internal and external spatiality’ (p. 62). For Dinter, Jack’s ‘defamiliarizing perspective underlines his role as a miniature philosopher in the novel, which links Jack to the archetype of the Romantic child whose vision often exceeds adults’ capabilities’ (p. 57).

  4. 4.

    UNICEF makes the importance of birth registration explicitly clear in its publication ‘A Passport to Protection: A Guide to Birth Registration Programming’ (2013), explaining: ‘birth registration is the official recording of a child’s birth by the State. It is a permanent and official record of a child’s existence. Birth registration is part of an effective civil registration system that acknowledges the person’s existence before the law, establishes family ties and tracks the major events of an individual’s life, from live birth to marriage and death’ (p. 11). In this publication, UNICEF also works through the relationship between birth registration and citizenship, detailing how ‘while birth registration does not in itself confer citizenship upon the child, it is often essential for its acquisition based on each country’s laws’ (p. 11). Significantly, this publication sets out the great difficulties that may be faced by those who are not registered at birth, indicating that ‘a birth certificate may be required to obtain access to basic services such as health and education, and it can also help to protect children from situations of exploitation and violence, such as child marriage and child labour, and achieve convictions against those who have abused a child’ (p. 12). The various legal situations that may result from the lack of birth registration are very complex, and UNICEF summarises these as follows:

    Children (and adults) without a nationality (i.e. nationality in the legal sense, or citizenship) are the de jure stateless. De facto statelessness occurs when an irregular immigration status renders people stateless—stateless in the sense that despite having a nationality, they cannot turn to the State in which they live for protection or assistance. Effectively stateless children are those who have both a nationality and legal status but—typically because their birth is not registered—they cannot prove either their nationality or their legal identity. (p. 42)

    Given the circumstances of his birth, then, Jack is—even if only temporarily—effectively stateless.

  5. 5.

    For Agamben, it is a different type of ‘homeless’ figure—the refugee—that most acutely exemplifies the plight and potentiality of homo sacer. In Homo Sacer (1995), for example, he argues:

    The refugee must be considered for what he is: nothing less than a limit concept that radically calls into question the fundamental categories of the nation-state, from the birth-nation to the man-citizen link, and that thereby makes it possible to clear the way for a long-overdue renewal of categories in the service of a politics in which bare life is no longer separated and excepted, either in the state order or in the future of human rights. (1998, p. 134)

  6. 6.

    In a discussion of the contemporary moment towards the end of Homo Sacer, for example, Agamben indicates the problem our thinking now faces, writing: ‘every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zoē and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city’ (1998, p. 187).

  7. 7.

    Kinga Földváry provides a very insightful and comprehensive argument for Jack’s ambiguous, ‘otherly’ existence in her essay ‘In Search of a Lost Future: The Posthuman Child’ (2014). She contends that ‘what makes Jack clearly a posthuman subject is his being the “impure mixture without discernible origins”, a hybrid in many ways’ (p. 217). Identifying the various ways in which people react to Jack’s appearance and mistake his gender, for example, Földváry returns to her main thesis, stating: ‘most of all, however, it is his birth that renders Jack so much an “impure mixture” that even his grandparents find it hard to accept him as human’ (p. 217). Significantly, Földváry further argues that Jack’s narration itself adds to the overall impression of his posthuman existence:

    the unusual narrative voice encourages us to revisit our concepts of what is normal, ordinary or human, and what is not. The reader is constantly forced to contemplate whether Jack’s narration… is characteristic of an average five-year-old’s linguistic skills, or whether it shows the consequences of Jack’s confinement in Room all his life, in an unnaturally extended gestation period, which may have caused irretrievable damage to his mental and psychological development. (p. 218)

  8. 8.

    In its entry on ‘Old Nick’, The Oxford English Dictionary states that there is no evident etymological link between this moniker for the Devil and Saint Nicholas.

  9. 9.

    For Agamben, the differences between sovereign power and modern and contemporary biopower correspond to power over life, power over death, and power over survival. As he explains in Remnants of Auschwitz (1998):

    To make die and to let live summarizes the procedure of old sovereign power, which exerts itself above all as the right to kill; to make live and to let die is, instead, the insignia of biopower, which has as its primary objective to transform the care of life and the biological as such into the concern of State power.… a third formula can be said to insinuate itself between the other two, a formula that defines the most specific trait of twentieth-century biopolitics: no longer either to make die or to make live, but to make survive. The decisive activity of biopower in our time consists in the production not of life or death, but rather of a mutable and virtually infinite survival. (2008, p. 155)

  10. 10.

    Agamben’s contention is given evidential support by, for instance, the UK’s Suicide Act of 1961, which repealed the law against suicide. Similarly, suicide is not a crime under present US law, although it can still be considered as such under common law. For a detailed discussion of such matters, see Elizabeth Price Foley, The Law of Life and Death (2011).

  11. 11.

    It is interesting to note the phrasing with which Merriam-Webster’s Medical Desk Dictionary (2005) defines ‘Code Blue’: ‘a declaration of or a state of medical emergency and call for medical personnel and equipment to attempt to resuscitate a patient esp. when in cardiac arrest or respiratory distress or failure’ (my emphasis).

  12. 12.

    Agamben presents the extreme point of contemporary biopolitics in Homo Sacer by focusing on a series of limit figures. With a number of case studies in mind, he argues:

    The hospital room in which the neomort, the overcomatose person, and the faux vivant waver between life and death delimits a space of exception in which a purely bare life, entirely controlled by man and his technology, appears for the first time. And since it is precisely a question not of a natural life but of an extreme embodiment of homo sacer… what is at stake is, once again, the definition of a life that may be killed without the commission of homicide (and that is, like homo sacer, ‘unsacrificeable,’ in the sense that it obviously could not be put to death following a death sentence). (1998, pp. 164–5)

    The point to be made here is not that Ma’s situation is of the same extremity as these various figures, but that some medical, biopolitical decision is taken about her life when she is unresponsive following her overdose, and, moreover, that Old Nick, she herself, and the doctors all—to one degree or another—try to control her very existence; indeed, the narrative seems at times to be almost preoccupied with her existence and biological continuation.

  13. 13.

    In Blind Date (2003), Anne Dufourmantelle sees a similar sexual ‘presence’ in the love letters of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. Analysing this epistolary exchange, Dufourmantelle states: ‘no sex—unless it is there within every word, and between the words, in the rhythm, in the resonance of what is not said, in the path they are opening up openly’ (2007, p. 87, my emphasis). More generally, Dufourmantelle contends that literature and culture are ‘that which in the blank spaces of language designate[s] desire as the center of gravity of all activity of thought, secret or exposed’ (p. 17, my emphasis).

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Davies, B. (2016). Exceptional Existences: Room . In: Sex, Time, and Space in Contemporary Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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