Since I was young, I have been obsessed with survival literature – stories about overcoming addiction, mental health issues, human resiliency and myriad tough situations conquered. The effusive vulnerability and insight into the troubled mind fascinates me, and this was why I was drawn to Lauren B. Davis’s The Empty Room, a portrait of one woman’s experience with alcoholism in mid-life.
Born in Canada, but now New Jersey-based, Davis is the author of two story collections and three novels, including her bestselling debut novel, The Stubborn Season, in 2002, and most recent book, Our Daily Bread, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
There are only two possible outcomes for Colleen Kerrigan, and we know this shortly after we meet her on page one. She wakes up sock-mouthed, vodka-soaked and late for work again. She will either get sober, or she won’t. For the entire novel we sit with her, in our own kind of voyeuristic agony, as she makes the same mistakes over and over again. She is pitiful and difficult to be around and loses everything – her job, her steady back-up boyfriend, her friends. She hates her life. She’s stuck. The only thing that makes her feel momentarily better are the fairies inside the Stoli bottle.
It is very hard for her to be truly inside her own head, and it is difficult for the visitor, as well. The Empty Room is written in a straight-ahead accessible style, but it’s a difficult read in another sense, because Colleen is asking that we hang out with her while she drowns. There are moments when the reader may want to abandon her the way her friends do.
Davis has not given herself an easy task. If you’ve ever gone out with your alcoholic friend and worried that she might die, or that you might die of some combination of concern, hurt or annoyance before she does, then you know Colleen. She doesn’t have much in her unremarkable life to start with, and she loses everything she does have. After she is fired from her job at the university, refusing defiantly its offer of insurance-covered rehab, she gets in a cab and heads to the liquor store. “This was not the way she had thought she’d spend the day. This wasn’t the way she thought she’d spend her life,” the narrator writes, as if in movie voice-over.
There are no moments of grand melodrama, just a slow erosion. In addiction memoirs one is used to reading of melodramatic rock-bottom situations, almost pornographic experiences readers can barely believe were survived. Davis doesn’t indulge in this cliché of the genre. Colleen experiences humiliations while drinking vodka from a salad-dressing bottle in her purse in the bathroom at the temp agency. She drunk-dials the few friends she has left with self-pitying, suicidal rants that she doesn’t recall the next day. She listens to Tom Waits and plans her death. She’s lonely, she’s insufferable and she’s been lonely for her entire existence. Nothing is really mined for its dramatic potential; the novel stays quite true to life. And that means, like life, it can be a bit boring. In that sense, The Empty Room is an entirely accurate portrait of alcoholism, one that is as unsettling as it should be.
What gives the story necessary movement and variation are chapters that explore Colleen’s childhood with an alcoholic father and an emotionally abusive mother. These flashback segments allow us to understand the choices she has made, and to contemplate the roots of her alcoholism. They are the highlights of the story as a whole, and inform how we see Colleen in the present, especially as she interacts with her dying mother.
Even if one has empathy, or even just sympathy, for Colleen, the novel lacks a narrative thrust because we know that she will make it in the end. This could be made up for with beautiful discursive wanderings, moments of artistic wonder, epiphanies or literary experiments. Davis tries this midway through with a transcription of five pages of an IQ test that Colleen has to take at a temp-agency job interview. We read the questions and are privy to her drunken thoughts while she attempts to take the test. While it was an interesting attempt to show, not tell, it’s not exactly riveting, because we know she’s drunk and we know she will fail the test. And are anyone’s drunken thoughts all that interesting in the first place? If you’ve ever written a poem drunk, you know the answer is no.
The Empty Room, which is rooted in Davis’s own struggle with alcoholism, is very real, and it is believable, but it isn’t truly revelatory, which may in part be the result of the form. Davis is without a doubt an exceptionally talented writer, but one gets the sense The Empty Room might have made a very tight novella, an engrossing short story. But as a novel it weighs itself down in its predictable direction.
Zoe Whittall’s most recent novel is Holding Still For as Long as Possible. She is a frequent Globe Books contributor.