Release date: 17th February 2015, 192 pagesPublisher: Hogarth, ISBN: 978-1781090244
The Room by Jonas Karlsson
Jonas Karlsson’s “The Room” prompts readers to question reality, within the novel and in our everyday lives. The narrator, Bjorn, is unreliable from the beginning -- he’s plagued with a debilitating superiority complex and a robotic view of the world. He’s the type of person who takes notes on how many times his coworkers go to the bathroom, how often they get up to refill their coffees, and how long they talk on the phone. He’s socially inept, obtuse, and creepy. When Bjorn starts his new corporate job, he finds a mysterious, euphoric-inducing room between the elevators and bathrooms – but it’s a room that none of his coworkers can see. Only Bjorn believes that the room exists. The discovery of this room leads to endless workplace problems for the already disliked Bjron.
The Swedish author, Jonas Karlsson, is also an actor and a journalist. “The Room” is a novella that was originally a part of Karlsson’s second published book, a collection of short stories titled, “The Perfect Friend.” Neil Smith translated this novella to English, and the original version has been received well by Swedish readers, who seem enthralled by Karlsson’s sparse prose, the unlikeable narrator, and the office-place setting.
At first, Bjorn seems quirky and odd, and at times it’s fun to be inside this narrator’s head in a “this is how a psychopath must think” kind of way. As he stands behind a coworker’s desk, he notices a “badly drawn child’s picture of a sunset.” He studies the drawing, wondering if his coworker “was aware of its flagrant inaccuracy. Maybe she was blinded by her emotional involvement? No matter what the circumstances, the child, or grandchild, deserved to be made aware of its mistake so that the error could be avoided next time.” It’s amusing to peer at the world from behind Bjorn’s yellowed glasses, stained by his arrogance and mechanical outlook on life.
It’s not until Bjorn reveals himself as a misogynist that he becomes an unbearable narrator. When Bjorn and Margareta flirt at an office party, it’s sweet and cute at first because it’s the only time that Bjorn tries to make a friend throughout the entire novella. But then he ruins the moment by saying that he’s interested in her because she “saw that there was something special about me. I realized that she was one of the rare breed of alert women, of whom there are fewer and fewer, and decided as I lay there to give her a little of my time.” By now, Bjorn’s quirky charm has worn off and his self-indulgent narration feels tedious and repetitive. The one time that Bjorn hints at a moment of insecurity, he spoils it by saying, “I suddenly felt how lonely it is, constantly finding yourself the only person who can see the truth in this gullible world.” Although the novella is only 100 pages, it’s difficult to slog through a book where the overpowering first-person narrator shows no moments of kindness or weakness, only endless moments of pride.
If Bjorn’s misogynistic, supercilious character is supposed to be a commentary on bureaucracies, the office place, or controlling men, the commentary seems to fall flat. From the minute that Bjorn starts working at this new office, he decides that he wants “to become a person to be reckoned with as quickly as possible…not a boss, or even a team manager, but someone who could sometimes show other people what to do. Not always liked, not a sycophant or a yes-man, but well-regarded and treated with a certain respect, possibly even admiration.” He continues, saying, “I spent evenings and weekends studying various structures and investigating the informal communication networks that existed within the department. All this so that I could quickly and efficiently catch up and create a small but decisive advantage over my colleagues.” Through an intricate scheme of manipulation, Bjorn achieves success and becomes the dominant force of the office. If Karlsson is trying to make a commentary that the misogynistic, arrogant man continues to succeed in the workplace, this observation is hardly surprising, nor is this a fresh presentation of the presence of male dominance in the workplace.
“The Room” takes place in Stockholm, but this detail is unimportant because the entire story is set inside the mundane corporate office where Bjorn works. There are no complex character relationships because the narrator keeps everyone at a distance and the only plotline consists of Bjorn’s attempts to gain control over his coworkers. The propelling force behind Karlsson’s novella might be the mystery of this secret room that only Bjorn can see – does it really exist, like Bjorn insists, or is he mentally insane, like his coworkers claim? When Bjorn enters his secret room, he feels clear-headed and he produces his best work. Inside the room, Bjorn sees “a large, shiny filing cabinet with a desk fan on top of it. A dark-green carpet…everything neatly lined up,” but when Bjorn is standing in his secret room, his coworkers see just him “standing on that spot by the wall again…talking to [him]self.” Bjorn’s obsession with the room drives his coworkers mad, and one says, “You’re fucking weird, you know that? Why are you so interested in this wall?” The mystery of whether or not this room really exists is the only factor that might keep the reader invested in the story.
Karlsson’s prose is minimalistic, but powerful at times in terms of detail and characterization. After his boss tells him to stop visiting this nonexistent room, which everyone else just sees as Bjorn staring at a wall, Bjorn feels attacked. He says, “Crying is for weak people. Crying is a sign of not wanting to pull yourself together, and a way for people of low intelligence to get attention. Crying belongs to small children and onions.” The sparse narration seems very appropriate, especially coming from this neurotic, robotic, mathematical narrator who views his day in segments of fifty-five minute blocks: “I reasoned that this fifty-five minute period was already ruined. I would just have to sit it out and start again with the next one.”
Although the bareness of the prose can make the writing compelling, it’s not enough to make up for the lack of plot and character development. The only other characters in the novella are Bjorn’s coworkers, who remain undeveloped. Karlsson seems to be relying too much on the mystery of the possible existence of this room to carry the story, but that mystery runs itself dry pretty quickly if readers completely lose touch with the aloof, off-putting narrator who makes readers root against him by the end of the novella.
About the author:
Ania Payne is an MFA student at Northern Michigan University. She has previously been published in Foliate Oak, Perspectives, Gravel,
Imitation Fruit, Oddball Magazine, and The Rusty Nail.