People in the Room by Norah Lange
And Other Stories, 2018
176 pages / And Other Stories
For 2018, publisher And Other Stories made a commitment to only publish books by women for the entire year and their latest book to be published in this initiative is People In the Room by Norah Lange.
Born in 1905, Norah was born in Argentina to Norwegian parents. At the time she was writing, women writers were pretty strictly relegated to writing exclusively about domestic matters: the kids, the husband, the home. This genre is still around today, we just call it “women’s fiction” (insert massive eye-roll).
While there were women writers who fought back against this, and rightfully so, other female writers like Lange decided to work within the stereotypes heaped on them, challenging and expanding the genre. As the novel’s introduction by César Aira––a modern Argentine writer with over 80 novella-length works of his own published––states, “perhaps the correct strategy for women writers, at least in literary terms, was…to accept the cliché and hide behind it, subverting it from within.” As such, Lange made it her mission to become the best damn “women’s fiction” writer Argentina had ever seen.
And by many accounts she succeeded. Her memoir, Notes from Childhood, was published to much acclaim, earning her literary prizes and banquets in her honor. Aira praises Lange’s work and that of her contemporary Silvina Ocampo as having written “traditionally feminine subject matter excavated so deeply that something entirely different emerges.” Today, several of Norah’s works are considered Argentinian classics, however, this is the first time People In the Room has been translated to English.
The novel is one of all-consuming obsession. The nameless protagonist is a 17-year-old girl who becomes unhealthily fixated on the three women who live across the street. She sees them through the window, always sitting in the drawing room, the details of their faces just beyond her memory’s ability to hold onto. As she watches them, she imagines all kinds of stories about their lives, mostly morbid details, and what it means for her and them.
The story is unsettling and anxiety-inducing, both in content and form. The novel is written in first-person and the long, stream of consciousness sentences add to the sense of stress, muddled thinking, and flawed logic that’s emblematic of obsession and mental instability. Lange’s style in People In the Room is not unlike that of James Joyce and William Faulkner.
In truth, it’s a subtle plot. If you’re looking for something action-packed, I’d say to skip this one since the action is more inside the protagonist’s head than in the external world. Even so, it’s odd to realize that upon finishing the book, we know much more about the three mysterious women than we do about the protagonist whose head we’ve spent an entire novel inside. That, too, speaks to the level of tormented infatuation the protagonist suffers.
Despite not knowing much about Argentinian culture at the turn of the century beyond what’s explained in the novel’s introduction, I couldn’t help thinking the protagonist’s unhealthy preoccupation with the neighbors was social commentary. Within the context of the novel, protagonist isn’t a fully formed person and perhaps that’s the point. When women are relegated to strict places in society, their limited surroundings can’t possibly allow them to flourish in the same way men are freely allowed to do.
As the reader, it’s nearly impossible to avoid judging the protagonist, especially reading the novel by today’s standards. I lost count of the times I thought to myself, my god, does she really not have anything better to do than stare out the window and conjure creepy theories about her neighbors? But then I considered this: when women are forced into tending to the household and all domestic life entails, is it really fair to criticize how they spend their leisure time, especially when they’re not given a choice to do something else?
At times, the protagonist’s captivation with the neighbors seems fairly benign. Who among us hasn’t speculated about the unknown lives of our neighbors or even invented stories about them in our heads? Who among us hasn’t looked out, seen figures in a nearby window, and tried to get a closer look? At other times, her preoccupation is downright frightening.
Every so often the protagonist mentions how she imagines or wishes the three women dead, while almost always coupling that statement with a mention of how much she loves them. This speaks to the fundamentally unhealthy nature of the obsession, but I think there’s more to it than that. Within the strict confines of her society, the protagonist is given so little choice about the direction of her life that I would venture her speculation about the neighbors is her way of exerting some small modicum of control over her environment, even if that sense of control is itself imaginary.
Although it never says outright, I got the feeling the three women across the street are imaginary themselves. Even when the protagonist meets them face to face, their faces are always shrouded in the familiar haze of a dream and she gets tongue-tied when trying to explain the women to other people. Are the women real? You’ll have to read it for yourself to decide.
The readers’ decision on whether they believe the women are real is the crux of the novel. If the women are figments of the protagonist’s imagination, it seems to be a statement on her loneliness and her need for community among other women similarly trapped in their homes with nothing to do but entertain themselves within their four parlor walls. If the women are real, the statement would appear to be more about the protagonist’s possible mental illness and how her limited position in society has affected her health. Either way, the novel is a commentary on the unique suffering of women in stringent patriarchal society.
Though it’s undeniably difficult to empathize with the protagonist (even knowing readers are prone to empathizing with protagonists in the first person, despite how objectively awful they sometimes are) I couldn’t help thinking People In the Room was like the Argentinian equivalent of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The protagonist is unfortunate: internalizing and mentally suffering from the societal punishments of the time.
People In the Room is one of those books that stick with you in interesting, unexpected ways. I always wait a few days after reading a book to write a review of it because sometimes letting the text marinate in my brain for awhile makes me feel differently about it. Time allows me to consider the text more and a few days’ distance gives me clarity I might not have had upon immediately closing the book.
When I finished the book, I didn’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other. I understood, on an intellectual level, that (from what my years of literature classes taught me) the book was historically and socially significant and that it had the moving target that constitutes “literary merit” scholars like to go on about. But did I personally enjoy it and find it entertaining? I honestly couldn’t decide. This rarely happens, but I was pretty evenly split.
But then I noticed something. Days and weeks went by and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’m still thinking about the book. In a way, I noticed I was getting as obsessed with the protagonist as she was with her three neighbors. The protagonist’s lack of description makes her an “every girl”––so she could be anyone, including me.
I started considering what I’m obsessed with––like my inclination to roam around cemeteries, my stereotypically spinster-esque love of cats, and my appreciation of a mega volume mascara––and whether any fixations I might have were a product of our still patriarchal society. I’m not stuck in the kitchen but, as a woman, I’m still expected to adhere to certain gender-based social constructs, including behavior and beauty standards. Admittedly, the novel made me a little paranoid. It made me think. Even my attempts at smashing the patriarchy mean parts of my identity are inevitably shaped by it. Lange’s approach of working within the limitations imposed by my sex is perhaps the one method of subversion I’ve eschewed.
Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio home. Her essays, poetry, and book reviews have been published in Entropy Magazine, The Citron Review, Barely South Review, Heavy Feather Review, The Missing Slate, PANK Magazine, New Southerner Magazine, and Deep South Magazine. Her work is forthcoming in Southern Women’s Review and the Columbus Anthology from Belt Publishing. Read more on her book blog offthebeatenshelf.com.