Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, November 10, 2014

Monday, November 10, 2014: Maximum Shelf: The Room


Hogarth: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Hogarth: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Hogarth: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Hogarth: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

The Room

by Jonas Karlsson

"The first time I walked into the room I turned back almost at once."

From this skillfully subtle opening line, the titular room is spotlighted as the crux of a strange and surreal tale. The first-person narrator of Jonas Karlsson's The Room remains nameless for much of his story. He assures the reader that he has been given his new position working for the Authority because of the outstanding work done at his last post--as implied by his boss, "gesturing upwards with his hand to indicate my career trajectory." This narrator, eventually identified as Björn, is a consummate bureaucrat and couldn't be prouder of his efficiency. He sets himself a strict schedule: 55 minutes of work followed by five minutes of break time for coffee, toilet and sundry; if he needs the toilet sooner, he practices restraint.

Björn is odd from the first, but we take him at his word: he is good at his job, perhaps not well-liked by his fellows, but effective and ambitious. In this new post, he is determined to work his way to the top, and secretly exults in a future in which his boss Karl will acknowledge Björn's prowess and grovel for his approval. Social awkwardness is his greatest challenge. His attempts to infiltrate the politics and society of his new office environment are clumsy; nonetheless, he endures the Christmas party. He's unhappily positioned at the very center of the open-plan office space, with a boorish deskmate whose piles of paper threaten to encroach upon Björn's territory.

On the other hand, there is the room. Björn discovers it by accident while looking for the toilet. It is a lovely space, a perfectly appointed, perfectly proportioned, old-fashioned, classy office. In his eyes, "The whole room breathed tradition.... Is this what monks feel like as they walk the corridors of their monasteries?" He catches sight of himself in the mirror, and is struck by how good he looks, despite not usually feeling that he is attractive, or even worrying about such things. His suit even fits better when he is in the room.

Björn begins visiting the room regularly, and a problem arises. His coworkers see him standing in a particular spot, along the hallway on the way to the toilets. He just stands there, entirely still and dead to the world, looking contented. This is unnerving. They don't see the room; the room doesn't exist on architectural plans or for anyone else; Björn concedes that, when he paces it off, no room should fit in that precise space. The other fourth-floor employees of the Authority gang up on him, enlisting the boss's power against him, and he is instructed to never enter "the room" again, under any circumstances. But Björn knows that he is a worthy opponent for these small-brained incompetents. He takes on a protracted confrontation in which these conflicts only deepen.

Björn is an exemplary unreliable narrator. As in the best instances, the reader is left to put together fractured pieces of information shared along the way, and struggle to devise the truth of the room and Björn's sanity. It's tempting to flip back to earlier scenes and reconsider. Who is crazy here, Björn or his colleagues? Is he the last breath of reason in an insane world, or vice versa? Are we observing the workings of magic, fantasy, conspiracy or madness? Is this really modern Stockholm, or an Orwellian nightmare? The parallel realities experienced by Björn and his colleagues, and the high-strung nature of his interior drama, are sketched with exquisite subtlety in deceptively simple language, and Neil Smith's translation from the Swedish is pitch perfect. The Room simultaneously approaches claustrophobia in its physical scope and achieves boundless significance.

There are several levels to the uncomfortable probing Karlsson undertakes throughout Björn's odd tale. Clearly this is in part a critique of bureaucracy and office politics (is it really ideal to dispose of your problem employee by putting him to work restocking printer paper?), but Karlsson also sketches larger doubts about the subjectivity of reality, social graces and the importance of control over the different aspects of our lives.

Karlsson's prose and the inventiveness of Björn's surreal mental workings are often funny; indeed, the humor comes in moments of breathless surprise that amplify its effect. This story will, of course, strike comic chords with the cube-dwelling set. But the overall impact is also deeply thought-provoking and profoundly disquieting, and the combination of the banal and the absurd results in a striking and singular read.

The Room is a very slim book with a very large footprint, recalling Kafka and Beckett, and posing questions about the nature of truth as well as the value of defining one's own work and life. As the reader interprets Björn's world and social cues, doubts are cast on his belief in his own superiority. But the drama persists until the final, bizarre conclusion. --Julia Jenkins

Hogarth, $14, trade paper, 9780804139984

Hogarth: The Room by Jonas Karlsson


Jonas Karlsson: On Acting in Writing

photo: Appendix Fotografi

Jonas Karlsson writes plays and short fiction. One of Sweden's most prominent actors, Karlsson has performed on Sweden's premier stage and in several acclaimed feature films and television series. In 2005, he made his debut as a playwright, earning rave reviews from audience and critics alike. Spurred by the joy of writing for the stage, Karlsson began writing fiction. He has published several short story collections; The Room is his first novel.

The Room is a short and apparently straightforward work, but takes us deeply inside the head of Björn, which is a strange place. How difficult is it to present such seeming simplicity?

Thank you! I'm glad to hear that. As an author, I believe it's all about trying to get inside your main character's head. If you're close enough to the story, you'll get an instinct for what is important and what isn't. If I choose to describe the right details, it will give the reader a clear image--probably not exactly the same as mine, but one shaped by the reader's own experiences.

Your background as an actor would imply that you haven't spent a great deal of time in office settings, but this isn't the first work of fiction you've set there. What experience are you drawing on?

That is correct--I've never worked in an office. But I've visited many offices and maybe I nurture a secret dream about working in a real open office landscape. I can tell you that the environment in the theater and movie business is more similar to offices than you could imagine. There are a lot of meetings, deals, hierarchies, informal decision paths, intrigues, jealousy--not to mention weirdos--there as well.

Did you intend this as another short story that got away from you, or did you set out to write a novel?

I actually never know how lengthy a story will be when I start writing. Most often I start with a situation or some dialogue that I think seems intriguing. Then I write on and see what happens. Sometimes it turns into nothing, other times it becomes a short story, and sometimes--pretty rarely--it turns into something as lengthy as this. It all depends on what I find along the way, and if I find it exciting to keep going. (I love this feeling of freedom in the writing process. It is like being a jazz musician and starting on a piece of music, and not knowing what will happen--all you can do is hang on.) The story about Björn was hard to let go.

Your decision to write in Björn's own perspective or voice is a large part of what makes his story so creepy. How did you make that choice?

In the beginning, I only had the part where Björn finds a room. I put myself in his shoes and, as the character took shape, he became very special. When I had the whole story set in my mind, I actually tried to change it to third person because it was so hard to describe how the people around Björn reacted to him. But this proved not to be so easily done. I felt it was like exposing him: "Look here, what a crazy guy, and look at the weird stuff he does...." It became obvious that the story had to be experienced through Björn for it to work.

Besides, I think it's very intriguing to gradually, over time, discover your narrator isn't to be trusted.

What do you think makes Björn such a compelling protagonist?

I hope that I've given him depth, despite the many comic situations he finds himself in. I always try to imagine that I'm my main character--I have to think: Okay, if I was Björn, what have I done? Kind of like l do as an actor when I play a part.

How hard, or troubling, is it to write from inside a space of darkness or even mental illness?

Above all, it is very exciting. But I did have periods when I thought it was difficult and wondered if I was going to go mad, or if my readers would think that I had become weird and had all of those crazy ideas. At the same time, it is a wonderfully mind-blowing feeling to create and enter into the mind of such a special character. Again, it is similar to acting in that way.

Did you have any role in the translation of this novel by Neil Smith into English? What does the process look like? Is there any sort of back-and-forth?

Neil is such a good translator, and I trust in his judgment 100%. We really just talked about the end, which is altered a bit from the original text. Otherwise I let him do his work, which he does so well. --Julia Jenkins


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