“Other Voices, Other Rooms” takes us prisoners in the life of Joel Knox, a 13-year old American boy, himself a prisoner in post-colonial Alabama. Do you remember what was like when you were thirteen? The hazed dreams, the enthusiasm, the confusion, the need to stand out, the need to belong, the fearfulness, the anger… We all had our own coming-of-age (did we?) and in Truman Capote`s first published novel we get a taste of a very particular one.
Joel Knox was twice orphaned by fate, and once redeemed – or so it would seem. His father abandons him at birth and his mother dies after a month-long battle with fever. He is but 13 and, after moving in with aunt Ellen, her husband, and their 5 children, he is then rescued by his father who invites him to stay at Skull`s Landing, his mansion in Alabama. He travels alone all the way from New York, with some money and the letter invitation his father addressed to his aunt – only after a very long conversation between the two. Once there, his father is nowhere in sight. He meets his stepmother – Miss Amy, his cousin Rudolph, the help – Zoo and Jesus Fever, Idabel and Florabel Thompkins, and a whole menagerie of lightly but vividly sketched Southern characters.
Throughout the novel, the plot touches on major literary themes, such as loss of innocence, sexual identity, self-discovery, or queerness. And although in itself tragic, it is not the plot that makes this book such a sad one. It is the characters.
All, but Joel and his friend Idabel, are ghosts living in the very constricted space between your real/private self and your socially molded/public persona. After reading the entire book, you get the feeling that most of them exist in that place somehow beyond their powers with “all of night between them”. Everything seems to be a dream for Joel – everything already was, after his mother died, and, at the Landing, not much changes. The mansion is full of secrets and ghosts and as days pass by without meeting his father, Joel grows more and more anxious that he did not raise up to his father`s expectations – who must have secretly seen him when he first came at the mansion.
It is really sad to witness Joel`s anxiety grow, and with it, his imagination and mythomania. He constantly tells lies about what he has seen and done in his lifetime and he imagines exotic ways to make a living for himself. And although sad for their self-deception and escapism, these moments are however a true literary cornucopia. We follow Joel`s attempt to meet his father, wake up from the haziness that is his life and be happy.
Characters that stand out
People in town speak of him with private smiles on their faces. He rarely leaves his room at the Landing or his robe. Randolph was born dead (literally, the nurse slapped him back to life) and, by his own admission, never quite woke up. I won’t spoil it by telling you what`s up with him but I loathe him ( for his cowardice)! He talks to Joel about things one should not discuss with a 13-year old and, in my opinion, he is Joel`s Mephisto in this book so I guess he also has a cathartic effect on him. The one touching thing he said was: “The brain may take advice, but not the heart, and love, having no geography, knows no boundaries”. He still is a coward in my book.
Idabel is so alive you can almost reach out and hug her. She has a “smart tongue”, is a “freak”, “belongs in prison”, was never seen in a dress, her mother calls her Foolishness and her sister, Florabel, believes “she’s got wilful ways” and you can’t reason with her. She is full of energy, more boyish and braver than Joel, is liable of doing almost everything to prove she’s got guts, and, more importantly, Joel`s only friend and the only person Joel simply cannot lie to.
She was actually mirrored after Harper Lee, who was in real life a friend of Truman Capote`s, and much of the charm of the novel is drawn from their own time in the South. I can totally see Harper Lee being just like Idabel and her own “Scout”, from “To kill a mockingbird”. I love her.
The mansion is a fearsome character. It seems alive with malice, as, since it is a house and it cannot move, it just stands there, decaying and engulfing people, their dreams and their willpower. It has walls covered in pictures, people living in it, and yet, not a “soul”. I see it as a big, unintended metaphor for life. And it freaks me out.
About the end (no spoilers)
At one point in the book, Randolph jokingly attempts to read Joel`s “clenched” hand, with no follow through – of course, it is Randolph after all. He does say to him this: “Have you never heard what the wise men say; that all of the future exists in the past”. And for me, the ending is Joel`s personal reply to this very belief.
The book is an indirect narration of Joel and nothing that happens outside of him it is ever known to us – outside of his thoughts, things he sees or hears from other people. Thus this book is extremely personal, almost like reading a diary without it being a diary.
In terms of audience engagement, Capote caters to active readers: we are left to connect a lot of dots, to interpret allusions, and half-impressions that Joel gets. It is not an easy read.
It is written realistically, with touches of supernatural Gothic in it – in Skull`s Landing, character development, the South superstition, fear as a major theme. The novel also has strong psychological components, in terms of the style of narration and the topic itself. A special relationship is also forged between Joel and the nature around him (especially flowers, crickets, and small birds) and this in itself, is a small naturalistic influence. It also makes the book deliciously alive and fragrant.
The characters are alive, whether they are colorful like Idabel, ghostly, like most of them, or a puzzle, like Rudolph.They are believable, more alluded than full out sketched, but rounded and endearing – most of them. In fact, the character`s interaction is well knitted and counter pointed, and this is central to the plot. When Joel solves the Randolph and Father puzzles, he is free to make up his own mind. It is brilliant in its simplicity, dreamy lyrical, and quite painful if you resonate with the major themes.
To read or not to read?
Definitely a must read. Impeccable writing, no self-indulgence, tons of things to discover in it. Painful if you identify with Joel in any way. And it is hard not to.
The quote to remember
An easy pick for me: “[…]all his prayers of the past had been simple concrete requests: God, give me a bicycle, a knife with seven blades, a box of oil paints. Only how, how, could you say something so indefinite, so meaningless as this: God, let me be loved.”
The lesson to learn
When the lady behind the curtain messes with your head, just remember that you do have a choice.
Cosmic hugs to all the Joels and Joelles in the world.