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 

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

26 thoughts on “Alert: An Oddball In The Office [review]

  • July 12, 2019 at 10:17 pm
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    I love books that are slightly off-the-wall. This one has been on my list for ages – thanks for the reminder!

    Reply
  • July 9, 2019 at 12:29 am
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    Sounds wonderful. I love it when you get a really good book and can’t work out how. I got Ice by Anna Kavan like that. I’m not quite Bjorn, but I’ve been moved on from a few offices, hence truck driving.

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    • July 10, 2019 at 12:28 am
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      Are you happier in the truck and on the road than you were in an office? Sometimes the issue is just a question of being in the wrong job

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        • July 10, 2019 at 6:08 pm
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          So it all turned out for the best clearly

  • July 8, 2019 at 4:06 pm
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    I already can tell that the way Bjorn changes will both me if he’s sexually assaulting people, but I am interested in stories of people in the work place. Did you see my review of Convenience Store Woman? It reminds me of this book, to a degree, but this one sounds more suited to me. Thanks for the recommendation!

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    • July 8, 2019 at 5:21 pm
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      The assault is very obliquely referred to, you have to read between the lines to pick it up

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  • July 8, 2019 at 1:57 pm
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    Well, I’m intrigued. Sounds like there’s more to this one than meets the eye and I may have to investigate to find out what happens to Bjorn!

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  • July 8, 2019 at 10:49 am
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    Fascinating – what a good find. There were definitely some oddball characters that I’ve worked with, but not quite so delusional. I’ll look out for it.

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    • July 8, 2019 at 5:22 pm
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      I’m fortunate too that none of my colleagues ere ever this strange

      Reply
  • July 8, 2019 at 7:59 am
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    I remember reading this quite some time ago and being impressed by it. As you say, it’s uncomfortable at times but very funny with it. Brought back one or two excruciating memories of office life for me.

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    • July 8, 2019 at 5:22 pm
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      Oh dear I hope those memories were not about people as excrutiatingly inept as Bjorn

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      • July 8, 2019 at 5:43 pm
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        Thankfully not! More about territorial spats, silent rather than verbalised. Quite a lot of my time in offices was spent freelancing which adds a welcome level of detachment from all that.

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        • July 8, 2019 at 11:46 pm
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          Offices can be such a minefield. Luckily for most of my time I had my own office so could close the door

  • July 8, 2019 at 7:17 am
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    Love the sound of this book, adding to my TBR list now. Thanks for the review.

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    • July 8, 2019 at 5:23 pm
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      My pleasure Rosie, It was quite an unexpected find

      Reply
  • July 8, 2019 at 5:38 am
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    Oh this sounds great. The last office novel I read was quite funny too, but a bit too short and underdeveloped. I like that this one has layers.

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    • July 8, 2019 at 5:23 pm
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      This one is short in length but there is quite a bit going on

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  • July 8, 2019 at 12:02 am
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    What an unusual book but it is true, there IS always one in every office, tour, committee. Don’t get me started. You wonder how they get through life at times.

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      • July 9, 2019 at 3:54 pm
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        Yes, very much so. There is a Buddhist teaching that has you meditate on the difficult per . You go through the day in your mind as that person and you supposedly have more compassion for them at the end of the exercise. I tried it once and it did help. I was so happy I wasn’t that person.

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        • July 10, 2019 at 12:25 am
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          Gosh that sounds a difficult meditation, do you still practice?

        • July 11, 2019 at 2:16 am
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          No, I just try to be kind to people. That’s hard enough at times. Lol

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