Review of The Room by Jonas Karlsson (transl. Neil Smith)

It’s that time of year when Christmas revelry has given way to austerity, when budgets are strained and when the daily grind of work and commuting becomes very nearly unbearable. So much so that the last or last-but-one Monday in January is frequently (though controversially) cited as Blue or Suicide Monday, the most depressing day of the year.

THE ROOM cover (1)So what better time to read this short but deadly satire against cubicle life? It is a wickedly humorous analysis of the lows (and no highs) of office life, as encountered by rather strait-laced, deadly-earnest but initially naive protagonist Bj√∂rn. His organisation, which goes by the rather sinister name of ‘The Authority’, looks favourably upon those employees who are positive, efficient, ambitious and meticulous.¬†Bj√∂rn feels he has all of these qualities, but none of his colleagues or bosses seem to agree. It’s only when he discovers a mysterious room at the end of their open-plan office, that he finds a congenial place for his finicky temperament, a place where he can get his best work done, where he can really shine. Unfortunately, none of his other colleagues can enter or even see the room. Suspicion, misunderstandings and office wrangling for power abound and fester. As readers, we are swept along with the torrent of acerbic, witty observations, always seeing a little beyond¬†Bj√∂rn’s blinders, but also acknowledging the justice and sheer fun of his¬†observations. I love the way he pokes fun at corporate jargon.

I got an email from Karl the other day. It was a group email to the whole department. The introduction alone made me suspect trouble: We will be putting staffing issues under a microscope. Anyone with even a basic understanding of the language knows that you put things under ‘the’ microscope, with the definite article. (Sadly, this sort of sloppiness is becoming more and more common as text message and email are taking over.) I let it pass this time, but knew that I would have to act if it happened again.

We suspect he might not be a reliable narrator, but his colleagues’ reactions are inexcusable, veering towards bullying. Case in point: the incident with the ‘indoor shoes’, which the well-intentioned but weak boss Karl buys for Bj√∂rn. This results in a murmur of discontent around the office. This passage illustrates perfectly the author’s minimalist style:

‘Well…’ Jens said from over in the corner. ‘I’d just like to know… how much those shoes cost?’

‘The shoes?’ Karl said, stretching to his full height.

Jens nodded, with a self-important expression on his face.

‘I mean, they weren’t free, were they?’

‘No,’ Karl said, picking up a pen, which he drummed idly against the edge of the desk. ‘I took the liberty of – ‘

Jens didn’t let Karl finish his sentence.

‘So how daft do you have to behave to get a pair like that?’ he went on, to scattered laughter.

The absurd situations described with a straight face remind me of Eug√®ne Ionesco. We find in both authors the same feeling of alienation, that step back to examine the banal everyday things we take for granted… and seeing them afresh for the ridiculous and surreal experiences which they really are. ¬†Another way to read ‘The Room’ is as a failure of imagination, the tendency of the mainstream to fear those who are ‘different’. It is clear that the office workers object to Bj√∂rn’s behaviour not because it threatens them in any way, but because he refuses to conform and fit in, because he is not part of the herd.

This book falls into a long tradition of quiet but steadfast rebellion against the tyranny of work. In Balzac’s ‘The Physiology of the Employee’, we read about personal expenses of employees being thoroughly examined, benefits being cut, and my all-time favourite sentence about the door on which ‘the sign reads “Human Resources,” which really strictly means “Human Capital,” and in practice amounts to little more than “Slave” ‘. Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener is every bit as prickly, difficult and unknowable as Bj√∂rn. ‘The Authority’ for which Bj√∂rn works has echoes of Kafka’s faceless, relentless bureaucracy in ‘The Castle’ (and Kafka’s diaries are full of his exhaustion and revulsion for office work). More recently, Ricky Gervais as David Brent made us squirm in recognition with his mockumentary ‘The Office’.

For a taster of the book (read by the author with a wonderful sing-song Swedish inflection), try this:

 

https://soundcloud.com/vintagebookspodcast/the-room-by-jonas-karlsson-what-are-you-doing/s-IGmxT

And here is the prize-winning animation of the book’s theme by a group of students from Kingston University:

The book is published today by Vintage Books in the UK. Thank you to the publisher and to Netgalley for an advance copy of this essential reading for anyone who has ever despaired of corporate life.