(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew AUG 7, 2007)"What if parallel universes were true and somehow two of those universes could lightly touch, creating a bubble? In life we must all play the cards we are dealt. But what if in a hand of five, you were dealt ten?"
Ray Melnik poses these questions in his Prologue to The Room, staking out the existentialist, pro-science, anti-religion perspectives he will embed and promote in this book.
Melnik has self-published The Room, clothing it with a sturdy cloth cover and commercial-quality dust jacket art symbolizing the idea of multiple universes with a fading set of door frames. Melnik's website promotes The Room with an attractive multi-media introduction to the book; a voice-over synopsis accompanies inviting photos of Washingtonville, New York and surrounding areas where the novel's action takes place.
The protagonist and narrator of The Room is Harry Ladd, a recently-divorced wiring technician of modest means who believes strongly in being a good neighbor. And whose surviving parent has brain cancer. His mother is suffering the last stages of the disease, so Harry's boss gives him a week off to be with her. As the story opens, Harry's two young daughters come to spend their Saturday with him, and he worries about how to break the news to them of their grandmother's impending death. Harry takes them on a day trip to hike in Black Rock Forest, where his mother took him and his brother when they were children. As they hunt for fossils, he breaks the news.
Later that evening, after Sarah, Harry's ex-wife, picks up the girls, Harry visits a local tavern. He knows the owner, Brice, well, but Lacie, Brice's only daughter, and he haven't had much opportunity to socialize. Tonight, the pretty young woman and Harry change that. As The Room progresses, Harry and Lacie grow closer in a gentle courtship. Meanwhile, Harry goes to his mother's home, where nurses care for her around the clock. Dementia brought on by the cancer seems to have put Mrs. Ladd in a time warp. She thinks Harry is twelve years old and she keeps asking him about his absent younger brother, Malcolm, whom she wants to see. Harry makes excuses because in reality, Malcolm estranged himself from the rest of the family as soon as he was old enough to strike out on his own. Malcolm blames his mother for staying with Harry and Malcolm's father, an abusive man. In Mrs. Ladd's bedroom is a large walk-in closet in which the boys hid from their violent father as youngsters. There is also a photograph that Harry remembers from when he was twelve. It pictured his maternal grandparents, and his father, in a rage, had cracked its glass. He remembers the eerie sight of his mother nailing it to the wall after he had already seen it hanging there. And he remembers a strange light fleetingly issuing from it.
But Harry has more important things on his mind now. He finally drives to his brother's home and tries to convince Malcolm to come make peace with their mother before it's too late. Malcolm has an intact marriage and a son, as well as a nice home. In terms of material goods, career and family, Malcolm is in better shape than Harry. But Malcolm is hard of heart. He will not go to his mother's bedside. He tells Harry that he made something of his life despite his mother's cowardice. And he condemns Harry too, claiming that if Harry had followed "the teachings of the church," maybe he would still be married to the mother of his children instead of dating a new girlfriend. Harry, together with Lacie, leaves Malcolm's house, resigned to the impossibility of reconciliation. The next day, he returns, alone, to his mother's bedroom to sit with her. She is on the verge of slipping away forever. And then it happens! The hand dealt changes....
Synopsis of The Room complete (at least as complete as I dare to avoid spilling the author's twist), let's consider some of the philosophical issues to which Melnik opens the door. This, his first novel, is apparently a reflection of his own views on life. How closely Harry mirrors Ray Melnik, I don't know. But Melnik says straight out that he, like Harry, puts his trust in science, not religious or quasi-religious belief systems. Both author and character expound the Darwinian view that human beings have evolved from previous life forms (Harry tells his daughter, who is holding a salamander on their hike, "You know, Kaela, it was your cousin three hundred and forty million years ago."). Both orient the universe (defined as everything that exists, whether we perceive it or not) as a naturally existing thing, not as the product of any supernatural intervention. Furthermore, that universe is indifferent to us in Melnik's opinion: Harry informs the reader, "I find it hard to understand why anyone would think the cosmos cared about any one of us." Both men are existentialists in that they believe, in the words of Wikipedia, "[I]ndividual human beings have full responsibility for creating the meanings of their own lives." Religious folk in The Room don't fare well. So there is no mystery about where this author and his alter ego, Harry, stand. Fair enough. Christians (and other religious believers) who don't want a pummeling might choose to skip this book.
However, one attraction of the novel is that the reader may start up an internal debate regarding the fundamental premises stated so matter-of-factly by Melnik. For instance, Melnik is convinced physicists' mathematical models constitute unimpeachable methodologies for understanding the universe. However, even scientists concede that hypotheses are just that: hypotheses. In The Trouble with Physics , physicist Lee Smolin is an outspoken critic of string theory and his colleagues who have hung their careers on it, claiming that it is speculation (in mathematical form) rather than hard science. Presently, string theory is a myth in the sense that physicist Wolfgang Pauli defines "myth": "In both science and religion, we seek creation myths, stories that give our lives meaning." Here then, we see, instead of opposition between religion and science, a point of congruence. Both represent means for human beings to try to fathom the ultimate cause, or the "theory of everything" if you will. Whether one is atheist, agnostic, or a theist of some kind, we all necessarily rely in some basic, unproven belief structure for the premises from which we begin. Atheism, often described as the logical end result of reason, can actually claim no more solid a foundation than any other belief system because like all others, it cannot absolutely know the "why" behind the whole ball of wax. At our current level of understanding, science fiction propositions such as one discussed by characters in Robert J. Sawyer's Rollback -- that "our world...might be nothing more than some far-advanced civilization's version of [the popular computer game] The Sims" -- are just as possible as Melnik's conception of two parallel universes bumping each other.
Melnik labels The Room as a "work of imagination" and doesn't want it termed "science fiction" because, he declares, "science is not fiction. It is a reality of the most all encompassing kind." Well, it may turn out that every aspect of our universe is a natural, not supernatural, phenomenon. And it could turn out that string theory is a basic building block of that universe. We'll have to wait and see whether proof is ascertainable. However, even if these are truths of our cosmos, will we ever truly know everything about everything? Perhaps the enclosed nature of our universe precludes us from ever seeing beyond certain boundaries. Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem strongly suggests this. Science therefore is a precious instrument of inquiry, but it is arguably not the only valid means for traversing from known to unknown. Faith, intuition, and other time-honored ways of evaluating the world may contribute pieces of the Great Puzzle that science cannot....
Returning to the specifics of The Room, Melnik has written a simple story. The unassuming writing style almost suggests young teens as its prime audience, but the subject matter deals with the adult concerns of a man who is father, brother, son, and lover. Thus, I recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in speculation about how, if it is an accurate description of our reality, string theory could impact lives...and to anyone who wishes to read about a genuinely decent character with strong opinions who finds himself at a crossroads. Even though Harry (like Melnik) does not believe in the intervention of God per se in reality, something "otherwordly" does engulf him and his circumstances. Melnik's "simple story" offers the reader a number of avenues for fruitful contemplation.
- Amazon readers rating: from 21 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Room at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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About the Author:
Ray Melnik took a course on existentialist literature in college, which opened a whole new world for him with the study of writers such as Sartre and Camus. After leaving college, he pursued a musical career, as a singer and lyricist. As an audio engineer, he wrote a monthly column on professional audio for a local music magazine. Later he became a high tech network engineer, and wrote for the technology panel of a regional newspaper and was the primary writer of articles based on home technology for the website “New Technology Home” until 2006.
He lives in Salisbury Mills, New York