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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 

The Holy Woman by Qaisra Shahraz

Holy WomanAncient customs and family traditions clash with personal desires and aspirations of freedom of a modern day Pakistan woman in Qaisra Shahraz’s The Holy Woman.  

Zarri Bano is the 28 year old daughter of a wealthy Muslim landowner. Breathtakingly beautiful and intelligent she has an independent streak and a strong will that has seen her reject the overtures of many suitors, none of whom meet her exacting standards. Just when she does meet someone who awakens the passionate side of her nature and is her intellectual match,  a family tragedy disrupts the wedding plans. Her elder brother, heir to the family’s lands, is killed in a riding accident and Zarri’s father decides to make her his heiress. In doing so, he resurrects an ancient tradition of the Holy Woman or Shahzadi Ibadat, a woman committed to a life of celibacy and knowledge of the Holy Quran.

Zarri feels obliged to obey her father’s will, putting aside her own desires of a life as a publisher and a wife. She thus relinquishes her jewels, make up and designer clothes for a black Burqa and turns her back on her fiancé for marriage and devotion to  the teachings of her faith.

The book traces her internal struggle between her ambitions and personal desires and her sense of honour and duty towards her father and her clan. Along the way we get an insight into the attitudes of women who adopt the veil and of the  way in which women feel powerless in a patriarchal society.  That was the aspect of the book that caught my attention when I first heard of The Holy Woman. Although it doesn’t appear that there really is a role in the Muslim world called the  Shahzadi Ibadat, I was still hoping that by reading this book I would learn something of the ideology behind the concept of the veil and its importance in Muslim society which might help me also understand the controversy it attracts in many western countries. But the way Shahraz deals with this theme didn’t bring any great new insights or appreciation.

We get rather too many laboured intrusions of the narrator’s voice to make the reading enjoyable. This is just one example:

Zanni Bano had no chance, crushed against this wall of patriarchal tyranny. Even with her youth, feminism and a university education, and with an outgoing and assertive personality on her side, she was still father to be the loser in this game of male power-play. Like her mother, it had been drilled into her from infancy to both respect and pay homage to her father’s wishes and those of the male elders.

Even when Zanni speaks in her own voice, her speech pattern feels forced and unnatural.

I am not only your daughter. I am me! But you and Father have brutally stripped me of my identity as a normal woman and instead reduced me to a role of a puppet…..You have all jailed and numbed me into a commitment which I will have to go along with – but not willingly.

I saw one comment on Goodreads to the effect that the characters in this novel are “without exception 3 dimensional and full of life”. I had the exact opposite reaction. They all came across as pedestrian, cardboard-cut-outs to me who speak in very unnatural ways. Sharaz could have done so much more with this book but instead allows it to descend into a second rate romance with a very predictable, and to me, unbelievable ending.

A good idea but the execution didn’t live up to my expectations at all.

Book Review: Cleaner of Chartres

Cleaner of ChartresThere are some books where the author’s message and their view of the world has to be teased out as you read. Sometimes you can get to the end and still not be sure you’ve understood what the author is trying to convince you about or persuade you to believe.

Then there are others where the message is so evident it virtually hits you on the forehead  every few pages.

It’s to the latter category that Salley Vickers‘ novel The Cleaner of Chartres belongs. Not that this book can be described as hard-hitting even if I did develop multiple bruises while reading it. It neither deals with ‘difficult’ subject matter nor features characters whose dialogue is replete with profanities or obscenities.

Far from it.

This is a book which I would describe as ‘cosy’. The kind I might read if I was prostrate on my bed recovering from the ‘flu and lacking in sufficient energy to wrestle with anything requiring more than half my brain power.

I know I’ve made it sound like this novel is dire.

It isn’t.

It just isn’t very good.

It’s ok, nothing more, nothing less.

The novel features a mysterious woman called Agnès Morel. When the novel opens she is working as a cleaner inthe magificent cathedral of Chartres. Who she is and where she came from, no-one really knows. Taciturn by nature but with a natural intelligence she builds a new life while never revealing the secret of her past and a dreadful deed that marred her younger years.

Agnes is a vulnerable woman not only because she has a dark secret but because she finds it difficult to refuse people who ask her to take on new work often at very low wages. The worst culprit is Madame Beck, a gossipy spiteful widow who employs Agnes as a cleaner only to unjustly accuse her of stealing one of her beloved china dolls. The aftermath threatens to breach the wall of secrecy that Agnes has built around herself.

According to the Guardian, Vicker’s novel “explores the darker side of human nature with the lightest touch.” Light in touch for sure, but the dark side of nature is really more like a light shade of grey. There isn’t enough about the disturbing nature of Agnes’s earlier life to counter-act the feelgood element that comes from the heavy emphasis on the positive effect that this woman has on the people around her. Agnes is a touchstone  against which other inhabitants of this town begin to measure their own attitudes and behaviours. Under her influence they start to change so by the end they all regard this woman with affection. Innate goodness and true friendship will conquer all seems to be Vickers’s message.

I kept waiting for the trajectory of the novel to change unexpectedly. But although there is a point at which everything threatens to come falling down on top of Agnes, the effect is transitory. Since I didn’t particularly take to this character or find her believable, I didn’t particularly care what happened to her.

This is a book that will have its fans. I am just not one of them.

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