"The Room" by William Trevor

New Yorker fiction -- May 16, 2005 issue

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A meditative, deceptively complex character study is how I'd describe this. Trevor seems to excel at intense, intimate looks into the lives of ordinary folks going through their crises in Ireland or England. This one takes place in a cheap London flat, the "temporary accomodations" of a married woman's married lover, who is never named (even she doesn't seem to know or remember his name). Beginning as a straightforward tale of a loveless affair, the reader is gradually let in on the darker reasons that have led her to get involved with another man and then released along with her in the end, after nearly scraping bottom, as she believably comes to a fateful decision.

Nine years prior to the action, cops showed up at her door to talk to her husband Phair (how about that -- "a Phair") about the death of a woman of leisure that he had been seeing (note: never pay a whore with a check). Phair was accused of the murder and arrested, even though Katherine "instinctively" lied to the officers about when he came home two Thursday nights ago. With no corroborating evidence, the case then hung on the word of one witness, the old landlady who identified Phair from a photograph. Eventually, though, her memory and confidence faded, and the judge threw out the case.

Katherine finds herself telling this story for the first time ever to the complete stranger she's sleeping with. The surprising and interesting thing is that she's still with this husband, still claims there is love there. They have gotten through it. It's in the past. Can you imagine? "You're fairly remarkable, you know," loverboy says. "To love him so deeply still." "And yet I'm here," she replies. But it's not even revenge that's driven her into another man's arms. As she says, she was merely curious about deception. And now she knows "what it had felt like for Phair." As the bland affair drags on, it seems she's more drawn to this man's room (see story title) than to him. The details of the room are as follows: books, boxes, open suitcases, word processor that "had not been plugged in, its cables trailing on the floor," clothes hanging on the back of a door. And a giant anatomical study of an elephant on the wall, with "arrows indicating where certain organs were beneath the leathery skin."

The room, rented by the man during this trial separation from his wife, appropriately squalid and joyless for an affair, becomes for Katherine a sort of dry run at leaving her own spouse, something that had never been brought up between them before. This realization sneaks up on her and the reader at the same time. Boxes and suitcases, once visualized, become possible for her. The elephant, dissected on a poster there, would appear to be a symbol for the grisly guts underneath the leathery skin of her marriage. She begins staying in the room after he leaves for work, making up excuses for her husband when she comes home (she has lost her job and says she's looking for work -- her sudden unemployment also may have precipitated this "variation of the order and patterns"). She loves to sleep in the room -- a ten-minute nap there seems boundless. She is testing the waters of leaving, but this doesn't occur to her until the end of the story. That's one of the cool things about "The Room": somehow Trevor is able to keep a lot of emotional stuff under the surface of his POV character, letting it dribble out, and the character is as suprised as the reader is when it does. Another neat thing is there is no sex at all, and yet the sordid atmosphere of afternoon sex with a stranger in a shabby flat is very much present nevertheless. She drinks coffee at a cafe across the street and finds as much pleasure in it as she had in the afternoon's romp. Trevor knows you can fill in the sex yourself.

The nine-year-old unsolved murder case nibbles away at her throughout the story, as if once she has talked about it to someone, once it has escaped, it gains a life of its own that eventually gnaws away at the remaining shreds of her marriage. Her thoughts about it and memories of it creep more and more into the present action until they begin to directly interrupt and hijack paragraphs. After six months, somehow she knows it's over one random day after they sleep together. "They had not said goodbye, yet as she went downstairs, hearing again the muffled gabble of the racecourse commentator, she knew it was for the last time. The room was finished with. This afternoon, she had felt that, even if it had not been said." The words echo an earlier scene: "They didn't embrace before he hurried off, for they had done all that." This is not an intimate affair, not something done for love, but an ongoing event that is allowing her to break her pattern and see herself anew for the first time in a long time.

She decides on this day to leave her husband. "It wouldn't be a shock, nor even a surprise. He expected no more of her than she'd given him, and she would choose her moment to say that she must go. He would understand; she would not have to tell him. The best that love could do was not enough, and he would know that also." So, she suddenly understands that just because you still love someone doesn't mean you have to stay. And also that by staying this long she has already exceeded her husband's expectations for her loyalty and continued commitment. It's quite a complicated working through of emotion for such a short story.

The tone is as flat and dead as her affect, which would be classically objectionable in a story for workshop, for example ("I want to see her emotions more" or "numb characters make poor points of view"), but Trevor pulls it off somehow anyway, in my opinion. Something about the subdued ... everything ... makes it okay. Maybe because it's such a contrast to the scandalous subject matter at hand: extramarital affairs, a murder, an arrested husband. Maybe by tackling such large, loud stuff so quietly, Trevor is able to transcend both cliche and reader boredom. At least that was true for this reader.


PJKM said...

Grendel, this is an excellent account of the story. I love William Trevor's ability to work atmosphere, his unshowiness, the way he dissects unhappiness. Here an affair isn't a thrill - it's a release, emotional rather than sexual (like Phair's long-ago transgression, too). The room is the place Katherine allows herself to think and talk about what happened in the past; it's where she stops deceiving herself.

"On the Street" is still my favorite recent Trevor story: it's in his latest collection (as Gwen Stefani would say) and was published in the New Yorker a year or so ago. But I was excited, as ever, to see Trevor's name in the contents page of the current issue, and to read the story - in a way I don't feel when I see other NYer regulars like John Updike making a repeat appearance.

Grendel said...

Was "On the Street" the one about the down-and-out fellow who hitchhikes to his old home town in Ireland, looks up the priest, and accuses him of molesting him when he was young? The terrible, horrid awkwardness of that story was just masterful. If that wasn't it, which one was "On the Street" again? btw, the guy is 78 freaking years old.

PJKM said...

In "On the Street," an extremely sinister ex-waiter stalks his ex-wife with stories of a murder he may or may not have committed.

It's fantastic.