Category Archives: Swedish authors

Alert: An Oddball In The Office [review]

The Room by Jonas Karlsson 

There’s one in every office isn’t there?

The worker who’s something of a misfit.  Who few people want to engage in conversation or join at the coffee machine. The weirdo who has all the social skills of a mosquito. 

In The Room by Jonas Karlsson, Björn is one such misfit. 

The Room by Jonas KarlssonHe’s a new employer at “the Authority.” Exactly what the Authority does is never made clear. All we learn is that it’s a faceless, dull, bureaucratic Government organisation that processes claims. The more complex the claim the bigger its file number becomes and the higher up the building it gets handled. 

Illusions of Grandeur

Björn arrives believing he is special, a cut above everyone else. “ He’d left his last job because “it was way below by abilities.”  (reading between the lines he was ‘persuaded’ to move on). Now it’s time for him to fulfil his true potential. On his first day “The words ‘man of the future’ ran through my head.”

He plans his day and workload meticulously:

I worked out a personal strategic framework. I arrived half an hour early each morning and followed my own timetable for the day: fifty-five minutes of concentrated work, then a five-minute break. Including toilet breaks. I avoided any unnecessary socialising along the way.

He doesn’t endear himself to his colleagues.

But then Björn doesn’t rate them highly either. His nearest colleague has the irritating habit of allowing his paperwork to spill over onto Björn’s desk. Another colleague doesn’t return pencils he’s ‘borrowed’. He receives sloppily written departmental emails. 

It’s all getting too much for Bjorn

Salvation arrives when he discovers “the room”. A small, perfectly equipped and furnished space that becomes his refuge. He finds he can think more clearly, work more quickly, more productively when he’s in the room. He even feels better physically.

There was a full length mirror in the room. I caught sight of myself in it and fancied, to my surprise, that I looked really good. My grey suit fitted better than I thought, and there was something about the way the fabric hung that made me think that the body beneath it was – how can I put it? – virile.

There’s just one problem with this room: Björn is the only person in the Authority who can see it.

It’s not on any layout plans.

There is no door along that wall in the corridor.

His colleagues complain that Björn is acting bizarrely, standing around in a corridor facing a wall. Doing nothing. Just standing.

As Håkan [a colleague] reluctantly explained, for the second time, what he could see in front of him, and stubbornly denied the existence of the room, I realised that I was going to have to be more obvious. I reached out my arm and pointed, so the tip of my forefinger was touching the door. “Door,” I said. He looked at me again with that foolish smile and glazed expression. “Wall,” he said. “Door,” I said. “Wall,” he said.

If you want to know how this all pans out, you’ll have to read The Room for yourself. It will spoil the enjoyment if I gave any more detail of what happens to Björn.

A Multi-Layered Novel

In part Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is a novel that can be read as a comment on today’s work culture reliant so much on protocols and procedures that individuality counts for nothing. Is this a culture where workers feel the need to find a space where they can be themselves?

Karlsson portrays the meaningless rituals and pointless activities that anyone who has worked in an office environment, will enjoy recognising.  This is a world of stand-offs over personal working space,  joke-cluttered noticeboards, untidy desks and frustrations because no-one replaced the photocopier paper tray or the light bulb.

However, on another level, The Room is a humorous tale of an outsider with more than a few strange behavioural traits.  Bjorn’s social ineptitude is hugely funny, more so because the whole tale is told through his myopic view of the world. 

Disturbing Portrait of Disintegration 

And yet there is a deeply unsettling side to this novel. 

Clearly Bjorn is suffering a form of delusional mental illness. When his colleagues take their concerns to the department boss, Bjorn accuses them of mounting a systematic campaign to get rid of him because they feel unsettled.

There’s nothing strange about that, creative people have always encountered resistance. It’s perfectly natural for more straightforward individuals to feel alarmed by someone of talent. ….  one or more individuals have taken it upon themselves to play some sort of psychological trick on me. Instead of coming straight out and having a normal discussion.

The reaction of Bjorn’s colleagues could be viewed as a fairly typical one experienced by people who are individuals, who dare to be different. They think he’s getting preferential treatment by not being made to wear ‘slippers’ in the office instead of his outdoor shoes, or taking frequent work breaks.

They especially don’t like it when he begins to outshine them at work, producing reports (claim assessments) that are exactly the calibre the higher-up big shots want.

But as the novel progresses Bjorn’s erratic behaviour becomes more erratic and serious.  He damages the office ceiling and pulls down the Christmas lights. There’s an implication he forced himself on a female receptionist. He begins acting as if he was the boss.

Reading The Room felt uncomfortable at times. In the middle of a humorous scene you suddenly realise that what you’re seeing is the disintegration of a human being.

It’s a bizarre but fascinating novel.

Footnotes

 Jonas KarlssonJonas Karlsson is a prominent screen and stage actor in his native Sweden. He has published three novels and three short story collections. The Room is the first of his novels to be translated into English. My copy was published by Hogarth, part of the Random House Group, in 2015. Translation is by Neil Smith.

I have no idea how I came by this book. It’s in hardback which is unusual for me so I’m guessing I found it in a second hand shop at a low cost and was intrigued by the synopsis.

It’s on my 15booksofsummer reading list for 2019

Want to know more

  • Foyles has an interview with Jonas Karlsson in which he talks about his reaction to being compared with Frank Kafka and Raymond Carver.
  • Kirkus also has a video interview with the author
  • Eric who blogs at Lonesome Reader has written an excellent review of Jonas Karlsson’s The Room here 

Beartown by Fredrik Backman #book reviews

Fredrik Backman joined the list of Nordic writers to achieve best seller status  with his debut novel A Man Called Ove.  A few other novels later he produced another hit: Beartown

It’s been called a sports novel and also a crime novel. Neither descriptions do justice to this book. Yes it dwells a lot on ice hockey which is the all-consuming passion of the inhabitants of the small community of Beartown. And yes a crime does take place. But Backman’s focus is more on the effects of the crime on the people living in this community than on the crime itself.

Beartown has seen better days. Every year more jobs disappear. Every year the forest swallows up another abandoned house so the whole place looks as “nature and man were fighting a tug-of-war for space.”

But its local inhabitants believe a new future is just around the corner. All that needs to happen is for their talented junior ice hockey team to win the national championship. Success will be the catalyst for new investment in the town, starting with a new ice hockey stadium and academy to replace the rusting rink built forty years earlier.

All the hopes and dreams of this community now rest on the shoulders of a bunch of 15-year-old boys. And on the shoulders of one boy in particular; their star player Kevin.  But shortly before the team’s most critical match, Kevin is accused of rape by Maya, the teenage daughter of the hockey club’s much-admired general manager.

Backman traces what led up to this act;  the pressures faced by the players, the conflict between the team’s financiers and its coaching staff, the hormonal impulses experienced by teenagers. The inner life of this community is laid bare, revealing homophobia, sexism and class prejudice beneath a veneer of respectability. The people of Beartown coached their junior team to display the same values the first settlers held dear: work hard, keep your mouth shut and don’t complain.

But those values come under strain as the community begins to take sides. Even those who believe Maya’s accusations (and there are plenty who don’t) keep asking why the girl just couldn’t have kept silent. Or rather why couldn’t she just have waited until the game was over?

This is a novel that avoids the easy answers. It shows that people are complicated and inconsistent.

So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe – comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.”

Beartown is a thought-provoking novel that forces us as readers to evaluate our own values and whether what we consider loyalty is necessarily an admirable quality.

There are few words that are harder to explain than “loyalty.” It’s always regarded as a positive characteristic, because a lot of people would say that many of the best things people do for each other occur precisely because of loyalty. The only problem is that many of the very worst things we do to each other occur because of the same thing.

Can this town recover? Reading it you hope that there are sufficient vestiges of courage and decency to make that possible. But then you remember the very first sentence in the novel:

Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.

Beartown isn’t perfect. It took a bit too long for me to get into the meat of the story ( I was getting rather tired of all the hockey practice details) but once it did, it proved to be a riveting read. It’s full of some memorable characters, especially Maya who is determined not to be either a victim or the guilty party; and Amat, the boy who dreams of being accepted as part of the team even though he has none of their wealth and privileged upbringing. What he lacks in stature however, he more than makes up for with his speed, agility and dogged determination. The scenes where he takes to the ice taking a battering against bigger, more powerful players are especially moving. 

It’s a tribute to Backman’s skill that he made a novel containing so much sport, an entertaining read for someone who has little to zero in sport as a whole. 

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