Other Voices, Other Rooms – Book Review

But the walls of Joel’s room were too thick for Amy’s voice to penetrate. Now for a long time he’d been unable to find the far-away room; always it had been difficult, but never so hard as in the last year. -From Other Voices Other Rooms, page 83-

Truman Capote’s first novel is gothic and mysterious. Thirteen year old Joel Knox (I couldn’t help making the connection between Joel’s last name and the saying: ‘The school of hard knocks.’) is sent to live with a father he has never met, deep in the south and among bizarre people. Joel travels alone, arriving in the town of Noon City where he is eventually retrieved by an elderly black man named Jesus Fever. Together they travel the gloomy, dark night road behind the stubborn mule John Brown, until they reach Skully’s Landing – the home of Joel’s father.

The first half of the novel introduces most of the main characters – from Idabel (the strange little girl who dresses like a boy) to Amy (Joel’s stepmother who likes to kill birds) to cousin Randolph (the effeminate relative with a dark history) to the likable Zoo (the black servant with an angry red scar slashed across her throat). Joel does not meet his father immediately, and when he does it is a shocking discovery. This part of the story engaged me with its gothic images, ghostly sightings and vivid dialogue. Capote’s description of Skully’s Landing was sharp and creepy:

A dormer window of frost glass illuminated the long top-floor hall with the kind of pearly light that drenches a room when rain is falling. The wallpaper had once, you could tell, been blood red, but now was faded to a mural of crimson blisters and maplike stains. -From Other Voices Other Rooms, page 50-

But as the book passes the midway point, it begins to waver and become nearly impossible to comprehend. The characters warp into strange and frightening people. Cousin Randolph spends a lot of time telling Joel stories that seem to have layers and layers of meaning. A lesbian midget shows signs of being a pedophile. A long night, involving a cottonmouth snake and a carnival ride, ends with an unexplained illness. And I began to wonder whether Capote was dropping acid while he wrote. The imagery is circular, dreamlike and unconnected to the story line.

I like gothic novels with creepy story lines and suspense. Other Voices Other Rooms had the potential, with Capote’s gift of stringing words together, to be a breathtaking work…but it fell short for me. It was too convoluted and confusing. Reviews and analysis I have read about the novel suggest it is a story about coming of age – but, it is a rough ride…and seemed to be more of a look through the pages of an abnormal psychology text.

I had a hard time rating this one. Capote’s prose is sometimes beautiful – he is an exacting writer – yet the plot was too weird for my liking. I don’t know many (if any) readers to whom I could recommend this one.

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    • Jeane on May 26, 2008 at 17:33

    Wow, it sounds really…. creepy. I tried reading Capote’s collection of short stories once, but have never managed to read one of his novels.

    • Jill on May 26, 2008 at 18:00

    Too bad this book didn’t carry its momentum to the end. But it sounded like it had some coloful characters, just based on their names!

    Hope you had a wonderful holiday weekend!

    • Wendy on May 26, 2008 at 18:34

    Jeane: It is creepy – and just not pleasant to read. I read Capote’s Summer Crossing (it is reviewed on my blog here), and really liked it. I’ve also read In Cold Blood many years ago and was impressed with Capote’s writing in that book – but this one left me cold.

    Jill: Yup, it was a disappointment…although the characters *were* colorful (and bizarre, and strange, and weird…*laughing*).

    • Andi on May 26, 2008 at 19:44

    I haven’t gotten around to picking it up (shame on me!), but I’m sort of disappointed to hear so many negative reviews. I had high hopes for it in light of some of Capote’s other work, but they can’t all be winners, right? 🙂

    • Liz on May 26, 2008 at 21:38

    Thank You for validation! All of the sudden I was like, “What in the world is going on??” As soon as he went off to the circus it was like, you’re right, Truman drops a few tabs and finishes the book.

    • Wendy on May 27, 2008 at 07:50

    Andi: I’ll read more Capote because I’ve enjoyed his other work…but this one was just too odd for me. I *did* find some positive reviews for this book on Library Thing.

    Liz: I read your review – I totally agree (obviously!). He just really went out there in the ozone mid-way through…

  1. Glad I’m not the only one who thought it started well but really lost focus in the second half. Your review explains perfectly how I felt about it too.

    • Wendy on May 30, 2008 at 07:19

    Tanabata: I think many readers feel the same way (from what I’ve read of the reviews on this one).

  2. I have had this on my TBR list for YEARS because it is the title of one of Nanci Griffith’s albums, and she is holding the book on another one of her album covers. I have read a lot by Capote, but I’ve yet to read this and Breakfast on Tiffany’s. Another that has been on my list for years!

    • Wendy on June 1, 2008 at 07:13

    Small World: I wish I could be more positive about this particular book – but, that shouldn’t keep you from reading Capote…I’ve read other books by him that I’ve liked quite a bit.

    • Dan on March 8, 2009 at 17:54

    I read In Cold Blood, and several other of TC’s books, but this one left me confused so I looked for analysis to try and understand what I missed. I agree that it sounds like he was on acid writing this book, but his prose was flawless. I read several times that this was a “coming of age” book, but that didn’t resonate with me. The dialogue seemed to be inspired by David Lynch’s Erasorhead or Mulholland Drive, starting out simple enough to understand, then spinning off into nonsense. When I finished the last page, I re-read it more slowly hoping to better comprehend it’s meaning, to no avail. None of his other books were as obtuse as this one and I wonder how so many people lavished praise on this work allowing him to redeem himself, since his other works were far superior. I’m glad I didn’t read this book first since I would have never picked up another.

    • Wendy on March 9, 2009 at 07:17

    Dan: Thanks for stopping by with your comments. I found this book mostly a mystery to me as to what Capote meant to say…like you, this is not a book I enjoyed, nor one I could recommend to other readers.

    • Koshka on March 28, 2009 at 08:04

    I believe this is a very well written novel, with its mysterious twists in the plot. I personally enjoyed reading the novel and i don’t think it should be criticized so harshly since it is described through the eyes of a 13-year old. The world of the boy is vague and unclear, there are a lot of unanswered questions. His perception of things is sometimes delusional, but only because he is a confused child himself. Just because the book doesn’t have a black and white plot with a bright ending shining in the end, doesn’t mean it is poorly written under acid.It develops your imagination, if you have a tendency for this sort of action. The reason why Truman Capote is one of the best writers is because his books aren’t old plain cheap novel with defined left and write.If you like Gothic and mysterious, but very clear in the end with no food for mind, you might go for Agata Kristy or just plain Twilight. A lot of good literature is never absolutely clear, because great minds think complex, they make you wonder for some time after finishing the book. Maybe i read this book in an easy way because i was done reading Haruki Mrakami and he has truly wicked novels. I would admire this book only from the rich style it is written in. Writers explore themselves in different styles and Capote proved to be exquisitely delightful in any of them.

    • Wendy on March 28, 2009 at 08:15

    Koshka: Thanks for stopping by. You are, of course, entitled to your opinion about this book and I respect your opinion even if I don’t agree with it. I enjoy novels which make me think and I read a lot of literary novels (you can see all my reviews by clicking on the review tab on my blog)…but this one was just bizarre. Many other readers agreed with my review, a few did not (like yourself) – and that is what makes the world go ’round, as they say.

  3. While I agrees with koshka that great writers
    do have complexed visions, it is clear to the simpliest mind that there is a different intent in the first half of the novel than in the second. Also, great writers recognized that they must have a reasonably clear design in order to realize their intent; they must have some understanding of what they were trying to do, even for themselves. This book overwhelms the reader without giving one the chance to absorb or even speculate intent. You were dead on caribousmom.

    • Wendy on June 10, 2009 at 13:31

    Thanks for the validation, Michael. I really wanted to like this novel – but I didn’t…and I don’t think it is because don’t like a challenge (as Koshka implies!), but because it was (for the most part) nonsensical. Here is my final thought…a great writer needs to write so that a reader can actually understand his point(s). As you said, “a reasonably clear design in order to realize their intent.” In my opinion, Capote failed to do this in THIS book. If his name was not Capote, I am not so sure this novel would have even been published.

    • bill on September 6, 2010 at 08:09

    This book is a hard read, but in the end feels like a novella. Capote describes everything so well (which is an understatement). His characters are so bizarre that his talent seems to lie in his love and understanding in them. My favorite parts are when (in the very end ) he seems to commune with nature and leaves his adolescence behind.

    • Wendy on September 13, 2010 at 09:34

    Bill: Thanks for weighing in…I totally agree Capote’s characters are bizarre! I wish he had been able to convey his understanding of them to me!

    • Rose on March 22, 2011 at 17:40

    To be honest the book was a little challenging but all together it was a great book. The intricate imagery and vast attention to detail really enhance the tones and mood of the book. I understand how it is a coming of age book but it is also more of an initiation out of society to where the norm is abnormality. This is probably one of Capote’s more challenging pieces but it is a beautiful one too. I would recommend this book for readers with high analytical skills and attention to detail.

    • Cooper on November 29, 2011 at 17:30

    It’s weird and strange for a reason. Its about him coming to terms with his sexuality and growing into a young man. It his mind projecting on the world around him, which honestly sex and sexuality is weird and strange at times. At the end the book regains a sense of normalcy, and he emerges with acceptance on his part of what he is.

  4. I love this book, and am about to teach it in my World Lit2 class. It is brilliant, even if Capote had been older than in his twenties when he wrote it. My advice to anyone who wants to be a writer is to take a lesson from Capote. He is a master of style. If you are reading mainly for plot, you may prefer another author, but if words matter … As for this book, it is an early work, and perhaps not HIS best, but better than most fiction out there all the same. If a reader is not into southern Gothic, then maybe this is not the book for that reader. Read Andersen’s The Snow Queen as a backdrop. Study the gothic tradition. Maybe then the book will make more sense to those who didn’t quite like it. Also recommend Carson McCullars’ Ballad of the Sad Cafe. And Capote’s The Grass Harp.

  5. By the way, I love your dog photos, Caribou’s mom. 🙂 They are stunning!

    • Rose H on October 22, 2012 at 05:50

    I found the bulk of this book beautifully written and at times – heart-wrenching. The descriptive language used to describe the surroundings was so wonderfully written, I was transported to feeling like I was there, looking down from above at everything that was happening. I found all the characters equally intriguing – trying to understand what had led them all to be the ways that they were – and again – this was achieved by the pure talent of the writer to give just enough away for you to draw your own conclusions.

    I do however agree that after the carnival – I descended into a stressful state of confusion as I felt I was missing out on things by not understanding the text. I thought at one stage that Joel had killed himself (and not just been ill) and had therefore been reading thinking that was the case and then suddenly he was back! I also couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps he was better off that way as I just couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel for him. The ending gave no closure – as although perhaps he was more enlightened – he was still stuck in the same dire circumstances.

    Anyway – that’s my two pence worth. I don’t normally comment on these types of things, but this book left me in a bit of a state that I can see others experienced too – which is comforting!

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