Near the end of Paul Rome’s debut novel We All Sleep in the Same Room, his protagonist (a dedicated fortysomething Manhattan labor lawyer) takes his son into a Park Avenue furniture boutique. The store is divided into rooms, like an Ikea – defined not by walls but by discreet arrangements of furniture. Living, dining, sleeping, working. The columns that punctuate the space boast slogans extolling a certain brand of modern design: “The details are not the details. They make the product.” And later: “An interesting plainness is the most difficult and precious thing to achieve.” Rome may as well be quoting Mies van der Rohe, whose famous “less is more” dictum became both a mantra for and an easy caricature of the Modern movement; he is certainly providing us with something of a thesis statement for his novel. Written in frank and uncompromising prose, We All Sleep in the Same Room is a study in concise characterization and in a powerfully disillusioned view of what happens to young idealists who move to New York City.
Tom, the novel’s protagonist, works in a prestigious labor-rights law firm in midtown Manhattan. His background is in activism – he met his wife, Raina, an art director and photographer, at a protest – and he retains his idealism, drifting into daydreams and soliloquies about labor rights. There is no question that he took his job because he believes that he’s doing the right thing. He’s also good at it. “If this firm were a sports team, I think my partners would agree – assuming they were alright with the metaphor – I’d be captain. According to the firm’s revenue earned minus expenses incurred, I’d also be the leading scorer,” he muses before a staff meeting. Tom, in his professional prime and surrounded by “some of the sharpest minds and the most idealistic hearts of a generation,” appears to live a life with a stable personal and professional core. He loves his three-and-half-year-old son, Ben, and is on seemingly good terms with his wife. The whole family shares a single bedroom in their Union Square apartment. They’ve just hired a new nanny, an art student named Frank, for their son, and they’re getting along well.
But untoward things creep into Tom’s life with unnerving ease, given a natural and oppressive sense of inevitability by Rome’s terse prose. First, he gets a new case. A woman was fired from her job as a receptionist at a health clinic in Coney Island, apparently for disturbing a patient with her preternatural ability to determine what her condition was on sight – for an uncontrollable and unwelcome outpouring of compassion. Doreen’s case strikes him from the beginning as something exceptional and disturbing and it continues to unsettle – not so much for procedural or factual reasons, but because Doreen herself is so fragile, so determined, and because her particular flaw mirrors something Tom sees in himself. Doreen flits in and out of Tom’s thoughts throughout the book, a series of small images, flashbacks, premonitions.
The other woman who haunts Tom through the course of the novel is Jessie, Tom’s 24-year-old legal assistant. A bright and ambitious Williamsburg law student just weeks from taking the bar, Jessie quickly becomes Tom’s regular afternoon coffee date, and then quickly more than that.
These narratives are punctuated by tiny moments of disturbance and frustration that build up to an atmosphere of compression and hopelessness: the single-room sleeping arrangement ruins Tom and Raina’s sex life, and one of their rare opportunities for intimacy is interrupted by Ben, who has had a bad dream. Tom himself awakes from a nightmare, screaming. Ben wets the bed. Tom skips work to bring Ben to the McCarren Park and invites Jessie; Ben, although supervised, slips and cuts his head open. Tom can’t reach Raina – her phone’s off. Later, he notices she’s started to shave her legs again. Frank, the new nanny, sleeps on the couch.
The details are not details. They make the product.
Rome’s infatuation with Minimalism is both obvious and appropriate. Sleep, just longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for literary debuts, is an efficiently and elegantly designed book: Rome uses clear and precise language to evoke a whole range of emotional states that are anything but clear-cut, and he relates the phase shift in Tom’s life deftly, with a subtle, inexorable, and disquieting crescendo. The tone rarely changes. If anything, all the precision and all the clarity makes us wonder even more about Tom’s motivations: why, as other reviewers have put it, is he so hell-bent on self destruction? What’s his problem?
I personally question if Tom is self-destructive at all – whether he’s killing his marriage or whether it’s simply dissolving, denatured by the heat and pressure of so many people in a small Manhattan apartment, by the compactness of the commute between Union and Times Squares. Although Tom remains an idealist at heart, he reflects nostalgically on a freer time:
In the past, September weekends meant catching an early train to Raina’s childhood home, where her mom would serve up a hearty lunch; after, we’d borrow the Subaru for an unmapped spin through the brilliant-hued Hudson Valley where we’d hike a mountain, drink a bottle of local wine, fuck like bunny rabbits, sleep at a B&B or else in Raina’s tent, fuck some more, pick six bags of apples, drop off the car, and return home in time to dish out dinners at the Holy Apostle Soup Kitchen. Though ostensibly our excuse for not venturing north this fall will be our three-year-old and Raina’s new job, our last private getaway or act of community service precedes both boy and job.
In contrast to that “brilliantly-hued” Hudson Valley, Rome’s New York is often raining or snowing. The physical environment often causes harm – McCarren Park sends Ben to the hospital, Tom wakes up bruised by a Coney Island sidewalk. Rome’s tale of personal destruction unfolds across a dangerous city. Of course, the city is not one-dimensional. Tom and Ben go to the movies and stare in awe at holiday displays along Broadway or Park Avenue. Ben has a good time, nobody gets hurt, they eventually wander into the furniture store. They go immediately to the king and queen-size beds, “their soft down comforters stretching erotically wide…diminish[ing] the memory of Raina’s and my paltry full.”
Moving between the stylistically and functionally differentiated rooms makes it “impossible to stop at imagining a new home without going just a bit further and imagining a new life.” The two levels of newness – new home and new life – collapse into one another in the elegant objects on display. Tom lapses into reverie, tinged with desperation: “I’m sure we’ll be living on the Upper West Side soon. We can afford it, especially now that Raina’s back to work. We’ll have two or three bedrooms. Maybe a study for Raina. Things will be better then. We’ll be one of those couples. We’ll send Ben to private school. Drink lattes. Shop at Zabar’s. I’ll join a gym.”
As if expansion, the space to exercise and to study, were the final solution. But we know what happens when Manhattan expands into SoHo, Williamsburg, Long Island City, Carroll Gardens, Harlem…
Thinking about Rome’s geographies, I might add another quote to his furniture-store Bartlett’s: “Architecture,” Mies van der Rohe wrote in 1927, “is the will of the epoch translated into space.” Rather than attempting to create a “timeless” style, Mies’ iconic minimalism was a calculated response to encroaching industrialization, and to its increasing influence on the life of city-dwellers at the turn of the 20th century. Rather than aloof and withdrawn, it was engaged, political, critical. In the same way, Rome’s novel doesn’t stop at describing the self-destructive Autumn of a Manhattan lawyer. While it achieves a striking immediacy at that personal scale, Rome’s attention to detail and sensitivity to context consistently hint that the story is much wider than it appears, that Tom’s story is really about New York itself, about its uniquely vexing beauties and pitfalls, its snares and lures. A city of engineered and calculated traps and mirages. It becomes more vicious the more it shimmers.