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.
He’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.
Jonas 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