You have to be ready for Jessica Null Vealitzek’s debut. You have to be ready for the brutal humanity of it, because if the title of the takes lends itself from the biblical proverb, there is no relief from any kind of religious belief.
Starting off in rural Minnesota, Michael and his mother move to Chicago after the death of his father, and as much as young Michael may see his dead father, there is no miracle of him ever coming back. Whilst not filled with people, Minnesota is filled with symbolism, particularly wolves, which sustain with Michael throughout the novel. The ‘Grandmother wolf’ for instance which must be killed in ‘the white and red snow’, as Michael reminisces about a hunting trip he had with his father.
When they move to Ackerman, Chicago, now surrounded by people rather than animals, Michael and his mother Anne, must adapt to this. Anne takes a job at her brother’s diner, and Michael struggles to fit in at school (lone wolf), as he inadvertently challenges the playground hierachies that already exist there. He is then further admonished when they learn he is adopted. All this happens early on, along with a miscarriage; a lot of the early pages you do find yourself just wishing these people could get a break. Regardless, the school does unite the two central story arcs, that of Julia Parnell’s and Michael’s. We’re first introduced to Julia in alternate chapters, which at first appear as a series of letters to a woman called Rose.
Typically, these two outcasts begin to forge a relationship. The teacher – loner pupil relationship is not new, but the story that Vealitzek renders it as is something original, because Julia’s sexuality and begins to take precedent in the novel’s events. They’re not just outcasts in a new town; they are outcasts when the eighties AIDS paranoia in swirling around them. Although Michael is not gay, or as far as we know is not, people see his adoption as a reason for him being homosexual.
Michael does make one acquaintance in Tina, a neighbour. She is worldly, and beyond her years, frustrated by Michael’s naivety and innocence, which irritated me as well at times. Tina , the ‘whatever’ saying pre-teen girl with a greater understanding of sex (another example i reviewed in Andrew Lovett’s novel, last year) she is not entirely original. But she asks more questions about the conflicts of sexuality and introduces one of the most interesting characters in the book, her father, Jim. He is a self-congratulatory, violent mysoginist with authoritarian power, or as Vealitzek wryly describes him, ‘a man’s man’, and his ego takes a beating when his advances on Julia are spurned.
On that note psychoanalysts might take some pleasure (ho-ho!) from their interpretation of Vealitzek’s work. A key moment, specifically related to Jim, but encapsulates the novel’s main themes, is when he is on his last job in Milwaukee, before he also moved to Ackerman. Jim is sent out to a neighborhood area because of a noise complaint. There he encounters,
“Masked faces appeared, whirling about him as he stepped inside…The masks laughed at him as they rushed by, Frankenstein, John Wayne, Ronald Regan. As his eyes adjusted, Jim noticed the people, male and female, were naked.
This idea of masks and, indeed being a character is something that troubles all of the characters and challenges the modern notion of whether a mask really is hiding something, or rather if we’re always masking ourselves, just changing and shifting person over times and instances, particularly here with the key debate of sexuality. Look at the characters of Julia and Rose, with Julia acting as the straight–laced teacher, but finds herself struggling to act as ‘what she really is’, that horrible phrase that to indicate there is some kind of essential truth about us. What she is, is a homosexual, but that is precisely what she also not is. She wants to be accepted as a homosexual but not defined by it. It is that essential truth that people see as justifications for vilification. To be what she really is would be to signify her exclusion as an outcast from society. Although set in the eighties, even now in our apparently free and modern times, there is still loathsome opposition to gay people, with the old orders reproducing archaic, old arguments.
The above episode is not over for Jim when his remembers,
he turned to step outside and call for backup, but a hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him around. Marilyn Monroe pouted back at him inches from his face,and her painted fingers rubbed his chest. Another body closed the door behind him and pushed up against his backside, hands sliding down his waist. He felt a stirring as Marilyn’s fingers brushed down, down, down until they played on his lower adbomen…that’s when Jim saw that Marilyn was a man’
This seems to ignite and explain his projectile rage throughout the rest of novel and his masochistic quest. Vealitzek may be making a pertinent comment about the authorities and the reaffirmations of status quo, but it’s also about man, he is a man’s man.
Vealitzek is playing with the greater themes whilst remaining hands length away; feminist/criticism of the rigidity of authority and power/ sexuality, but producing a story to go with it, which i’m sure people will be happy to read without the subtexts. Some of the character’s are slightly overused stocks, and some of the phrasing skirts cliché and the overly hyperbole; a plate for instance ‘smashes into a hundred pieces’. Does it really? And you can imagine the kind of typical rage and frustration that led to that. And as already mentioned, Michael, who witnesses several early trauma’s remains ridiculously composed throughout the novel, and it’s no wonder Tina get’s frustrated with him. There is also quite a bit of reminiscing that serves as exposition. But, there is still plenty to take away from The Rooms Are Filled.
The Rooms Are Filled by Jessica Null Vealitzek is out now published by She Writes Press. Thanks to them for providing a review copy.