“The Room” by Ray Melnik has a simple title and the storyline itself is relatively simple, but the treatment of its underlying scientific and philosophical ideas are tremendously original; their effortless placement within an otherwise ordinary story reflects the natural magnificence of the book that Melnik, in the introduction, refuses to refer to as science fiction because “science is not fiction. It is a reality of the most all-encompassing kind.”
The novel’s narrator, Harry Ladd, is recently divorced from his wife. He now lives in a small apartment in the town center where he has easy access to stores, the local pub, and several kind-hearted people to keep him company. Harry becomes good friends with the local pub owner’s daughter, Lacey, and a romantic relationship develops between them, with Lacey being mature enough to understand that Harry is currently going through a difficult time because his mother is dying of cancer. Harry spends most of his time comforting his mother, playing along with her delusions, and struggling with the decision of whether to tell his estranged brother, Malcolm, that their mother will soon die.
As boys, Harry and Malcolm were close. As the older brother, Harry often looked out for Malcolm. Throughout the novel, Harry remembers their childhood and the bond they shared, a bond that ultimately was severed when Malcolm grew up and was able to escape from their parents’ house. Harry’s father was physically abusive to both their mother and the boys. Harry constantly remembers his father’s violent behavior, and even more, how his mother and brother suffered while he tried to look after both of them. This abusive childhood has shaped who Harry is today—a caring man, an atheist and a believer in science. Harry has no patience for people who try to push their religion on him. In a telling scene from his childhood, Malcolm says to Harry, “Daniel’s family believes in God. They say he watches over people. Do you think it’s true?” Harry replies, “Not over us, Malcolm.” Readers may not agree with Harry’s religious viewpoints, but his reason for his atheistic beliefs is understandable, and throughout the novel, Harry asks legitimate questions about how God could exist when awful things happen, including his father’s abusive behavior toward his family. At times, Harry’s comments about religion and politics are a bit distracting and preachy, and some readers may take offense, but these moments develop Harry’s character and the novel’s direction.
At the novel’s heart are the scenes between Harry and his delusional mother, who thinks he is only twelve; his mother is very concerned about his brother Malcolm, who is never home, so Harry continually makes up excuses that his brother is playing at a friend’s house or participating in some activity. Truthfully, Malcolm refuses to have anything to do with Harry or their mother. He blames his mother for letting their father mistreat them, while Harry has come to sympathize with his mother, seeing her as a victim rather than someone to blame. As he talks to his mother as if it were twenty-some years in the past, Harry comes to realize how difficult their family situation was for her, and he realizes how much she wishes she had left their father so life would have been easier for her sons.
The novel’s climax lies in his mother’s wishing she had left her husband and in Harry trying to decide whether to tell Malcolm that their mother is about to die. Without giving away the ending, I will say the novel’s resolution is imaginative and unexpected, but a rational and logical conclusion. A lesser writer would have provided a resolution where Harry suddenly experiences a conversion to Christianity, or Malcolm is reconciled to the family. Instead, the novel takes a creative and satisfying turn.
Ray Melnik includes an introduction to “The Room” that discusses the theories behind it. He refers to “The Room” as having an existential view, and on his web site, he acknowledges a debt to Sartre and Camus. These classic twentieth century existentialist writers typically depicted the universe as meaningless and without a God. While this view frees man to make his own life and decisions, many existentialist works were marked by a sense of despair. Melnik takes the genre a step further by blending scientific theory into the work. If “The Room” is existentialism, it is more post-existentialism, with a maturity based in science that provides potential hope for humanity. Melnik states that the novel’s scientific theories were influenced by Leonard Susskind’s “The Cosmic Landscape,” Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe,” writings by Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, and theories of alternate or parallel universes and “string theory.” Readers need not be familiar with these theories to enjoy the novel (although they will probably want to investigate them later); Melnik effortlessly blends the theories into the novel so the conclusion is mature, well-constructed and the logical solution to the main character’s problems.
A sequel to “The Room” titled “To Your Own Self Be True” will be published later in 2009. In this novel, set in 2021, Harry Ladd tells his daughter Kaela about the experience he had that changed their lives, and a convergence of events occurs that gives Kaela the opportunity to learn one of the greatest lessons of all. I look forward to following Ray Melnik’s characters and theories further. For more information about Ray Melnik’s novels, visit www.emergentnovels.com
— Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D., author of “The Marquette Trilogy”
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