The Room – a book review
Title: The Room
Author: Jonas Karlsson
Publisher: Hogarth (2009, trans. 2015)
Pages: 186 (not incl. discussion guide)
Price: $11.17 (USD, Amazon.com)
The Room is the absurd, slightly sad and intriguing tale of Björn, who finds a strange room in the office where he works.
From the start, I suspected that Björn would be the sort of insufferable jerk that we’ve all had the misfortune to work with at some point or another. Björn was transferred from his previous work place for reasons never made entirely clear:
It wasn’t my decision to move on. I was fairly happy at my last job and felt comfortable with the routines, but somehow I outgrew the position and ended up feeling that I was doing a job that was way below my abilities, and I have to admit that I didn’t always see eye to eye with my colleagues.
It became clear very quickly that Björn was going to be a very unreliable narrator – after all, if he were really “happy” and “comfortable” in his job, it seems absurd that he’d suddenly “somehow” feel the work was beneath him. I can only assume that his old boss was all too happy to see him go and become someone else’s problem.
By page 14, Björn cemented my dislike of him with his petty observations about his co-workers:
Slowly but surely I built up profiles of my closest neighbours, their character and place in the hierarchy. Beyond Håkan [Björn’s desk mate] sat Ann. A woman somewhere around fifty. She seemed knowledgeable and ambitious, but also the sort of person who thought she knew everything and liked being proven right…Opposite Ann sat Jörgen. Big and strong, but doubtless not possessed of an intellect to match…
In addition to his nasty little asides about his co-workers, there is the room – a strange puzzle of a place which increasingly becomes the focus of Björn’s working life (in good and bad ways) to the point of a being an obsession for him and his co-workers.
At first, from the descriptions, it seems that the room is real and merely an unused office. But as a reader, I never felt absolutely certain of its existence because Björn had already established himself as a character I couldn’t trust. Later, when it turns out his colleagues can’t see the room at all – and see nothing more than Björn standing in the hallway even when he insists he’s in the room – you feel almost sure that the room isn’t there, but not enough to say so definitively because Björn is always so insistent that it does exist – and his insistence about the room’s existence is the only time his emotions seem trustworthy and genuine.
The whole book puzzled me and made me feel uncomfortable long after I’d finished it – as I’m sure it was intended to do.
A few days after finishing The Room, I realised that I felt uncomfortable about the book not only because of the frustrating problem of the room being real or not, but also because I realised that I could identify more than I liked with Björn’s character. I doubt I’m alone in this: the quick (and probably unfair) judgements when we meet new people; the ego-driven conviction that we’re actually, when you really consider it, quite brilliant; the push-me pull-me desire to be left alone to do our “brilliant” work, but also to be admired for it, which requires interacting with others on more than a superficial level – if you want to be seen as having some humility (and we all want to be seen as brilliant, but humble about it).
It’s an unpleasant feeling to discover that you have anything in common with a person like Björn – even if only sometimes.
I know how stupid it is to think, even for a moment, that any of us have a monopoly on intelligence or any other positive trait. We are all flawed; how much more or less flawed than other people doesn’t matter – there are no prizes to be won either way, so there’s no point in keeping score. Yet, we all do. We’re all measuring our place in the hierarchy of our workplaces, our group of friends, our classmates, and even our families – and it never works in our favour to spend time on this pointless activity, but we keep doing it anyway.
The Room is not a difficult read – in terms of language at least – but it has kept me going back again and again to my own strange room; the one in my head that only I can enter; the place where I can see my own Björn-like thoughts for the silly, but utterly human things they are.