The Room (2009, English translation to be published 15 January 2015) by Jonas Karlsson
This is the story of Björn, the newest employee of 'the Authority' - an organisation which, as mysterious as it sounds, resembles the sort of very ordinary office found all over the world. Convinced of his own superiority to his co-workers, Björn immediately develops a plan for success, involving 55-minute periods of intense work and as little contact with his colleagues as possible. But it's only when he discovers 'the room', a small, beautifully furnished office which appears to belong to no-one, that his awakening really begins. In the room, he can focus perfectly on his work, become an improved version of himself. The problem is, nobody else believes the room exists.
The Room works on lots of levels:
– It's a satire of office culture in which the characters, and the workplace, are at the same time generic and completely recognisable. (The author bio at the beginning informs the reader that Karlsson has never worked in an office - pretty amazing given the merciless accuracy of his portrayal of this environment.)
– It's a psychological drama - we don't know (at least at first) whether Björn is mad, whether he's consciously pretending, or whether the room really exists and his colleagues are playing a cruel trick on him. His visit to the psychiatrist provides a real stomach-flipping twist.
– If you choose to read it this way, it's a mystery - what does the Authority do? Do its employees even know the answer to that one? If the room does exist, what reason do the other staff have for pretending it doesn't? This conundrum is one that's investigated by Björn himself, and forms part of the breakdown charted in the novel.
– It's a comment on workplace bullying and the way we respond to mental illness. When the staff of the Authority confront Björn, it reads partly as funny - there is an element to this setting, with its lack of detail, that's somehow unnatural, so the reader knows not to take what happens entirely seriously, and some of the details are explicitly comic (Björn shuffling around in his plastic shoe covers). But if you put yourself in his place, it's also horrifying: his fellow workers talking about his 'madness' in insulting terms right in front of him, speaking about him as if he's not there, becoming openly threatening and nasty. Another aspect of this: if Björn's soujourns to the room help him to do his job, make him more productive and a more valuable member of the team, does it matter whether they're real or not? How should the others balance their discomfort about Björn's activities - which, after all, are harmless - against the benefits they gain from allowing him to carry on? Again, this is a question the characters are forced to ask themselves and, by extension, a question the reader is encouraged to face too.
Björn is a brilliant character. He's unreliable on several fronts (lying to the reader and/or lying to himself?), incredibly pedantic, and his personality combines extreme awkwardness with extreme arrogance, producing an effect that's both awful and hilarious. He isn't supposed to be likeable, and other readers will no doubt have mixed reactions to him, but I couldn't help liking him. Maybe I sympathised with Björn because one way to read The Room is as a critique of individualism: his colleagues object to his behaviour not just because of its obvious strangeness, but because Björn acts alone and apart from the group. Is the story, perhaps, a cautionary tale about the dangers of daring to aim too high or 'think outside the box'? (Literally, in Björn's case.)
The Room is the first of Swedish author Karlsson's works to be translated into English. As far as I can tell, it was originally published as part of a volume of short stories, and that shows in the precision of its minimalist style. Which is not to say it's too short to count as a novel in its own right - it has 65 chapters. But each tiny detail is finely honed. Björn's brief, faintly sinister summary of his history - 'I have to admit that I didn't always see eye to eye with my colleagues', he says of his previous job, no doubt significantly downplaying whatever that situation was. His scathing pen portraits of workmates - 'pinned up around his desk... were loads of jokey notes and postcards that obviously had nothing to do with work, and suggested a tendency towards the banal'. The room itself - its neatness, its clean lines, its atmosphere akin to 'early mornings at school... the same relaxed feeling and limited freedom'.
The blurb for The Room describes it as Kafkaesque, a comparison that's often thrown about without having much real relevance to whatever it's attached to. The last book I read, The Spirit Cabinet by Paul Quarrington, came with a quote on the jacket likening it to 'a more expansive Kafka' - I liked the book, but that comparison is frankly ridiculous. In Ch'oe In-ho's Another Man's City, the influence of Kafka is made explicitly obvious - not least through the fact that the protagonist is known only as K - but I found the references too overt. The Room, however, really does deserve to be called Kafkaesque. The subtle surrealism of Björn's situation, the overwhelming and disconcerting power of the Authority and all its bureaucratic regulations, and Björn's persona - halfway between ignorant and knowing, looking for a way out of this labyrinth but going about it in all the wrong ways - all fit the term very well. The Room is more than just a homage, however: Karlsson's style and humour make it a strong story in its own right, quite apart from any influences.
A short, sharp, quick read that's nevertheless full of details ripe for analysis, The Room has the makings of a cult classic, and I'm really looking forward to reading more from Karlsson.
I received an advance review copy of The Room from the publisher through NetGalley.
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