The Room, by Jonas Karlsson, trans. by Neil Smith
A brilliantly deadpan take on modern-day office life
Paranoia is the modern condition, and at the most local level it is, as often as not, tied to employment or lack of it. Can I survive? Will I survive? Who’s sitting at my desk? Who has their knife aimed at my back? And – always paramount – whose knife is actually lodged in it? The modern office is the new coliseum of soul-destroying pettiness. Employees are but so many doomed gladiators, a ball and chain weighing one leg down while the tigers – line managers and rivals – snarl, inches away, eager to sniff blood. Bosses and colleagues hover, on the lookout for signs of weakness: errors, omissions, missed deadlines, the telltale pallor of impending crack-up as you whimper something about a faulty spellchecker.
Just as a wounded animal seeks a hiding place, a beleaguered employee tends to dream of sanctuary. In the case of Bjorn, the misfit antihero of the Swedish actor and writer Jonas Karlsson’s deadpan romp, he appears to have found it, beside the office men’s room. Or has he? As this cautionary tract opens, Bjorn, a civil servant of sorts, facing his first day in a new job, has a few personal issues, most of which are dwarfed by his staggering lack of a personality. He partly compensates for this deficit through frequent displays of attitude of the variety guaranteed to turn all but the most indulgent parent against the perpetrator. None of Bjorn’s fellow workers knows him, so it is clear his parents are not on the staff. This could prove problematic, and not just for Bjorn.
“I had started work at the Authority two weeks before, and in many respects I was still a newcomer . . . I had got used to being one of the leaders in my last job. Not a boss, or even a team manager, but someone who could show other people what to do.” The office is in Stockholm; little else is revealed. Even so, Karlsson makes it too easy for the reader. Within a few sentences it is obvious that Bjorn is more victim than rebel; the main question is exactly how much of his behaviour is motivated by rebellion. “It wasn’t really my decision to move on. I was fairly happy at my last job . . . somehow I outgrew the position . . . and I have to admit that I didn’t always see eye to eye with my colleagues.”
Almost immediately Bjorn demonstrates his flair for alienating people by insulting the person with whom he is to share a desk. Hakan had begun by welcoming Bjorn, by showing him around and giving him all kinds of information about the office, the job and good places to eat. But Bjorn has a way of dealing with kindness and snaps: “Can you just calm down a bit?” Hakan retreats while Bjorn gloatingly concedes that he was happy, as the rebuke fitted in with his reputation for ambition and tough tactics. War is soon declared because of Hakan’s messy habit of scattering his papers.
Parody of KafkaThe Room has been compared, wrongly, to Kafka’s masterpiece, The Trial, of which it is a clever parody, nothing more. More bizarre are the claims that it shares anything with Beckett. It doesn’t, stylistically or otherwise. Karlsson’s book is not really about the Authority; however mysterious an entity, it is little more than faceless management. Instead this brilliantly deadpan narrative is a study of a programmed, dehumanised individual who suffers from paranoia of the most self-absorbed variety.
Whereas in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007) a communal lament is shared by a first-person-plural narrative, Bjorn’s more clinical, solo account conveys more menace and far less pathos. If Karlsson has a theme it is the inner anger that appears to sustain humans – in this case office workers – through their days. Bjorn is angry, as are his 22 frustrated workmates, who are eager for a scapegoat that he clearly personifies.
That said, the book is often very funny. Bjorn’s belief in The Room as a place of inner peace is compellingly presented: “It was a fairly small room. A desk in the middle. A computer . . . Nothing remarkable. But all of it in perfect order . . . Everything neatly lined up. Prepared. As if the room were waiting for someone.”
The strongest hint of Karlsson’s intentions is the first appearance of Karl, Bjorn’s new boss and a most interesting character. His bewildered response to Bjorn’s antics wavers between discipline and exasperation. Availing of his acidic powers of observation, Bjorn notes Karl’s thinning hair and cotton cardigan, which “wasn’t very new, but looked expensive”. Without any introductory pleasantries, it is an odd comment for Bjorn to make. Karl merely remarks on Bjorn’s dirty shoes. “We try to think about the floor,” he says and then walks away, leaving Bjorn to feel “both stupid and insecure, when in fact I was one of the smartest”. By then he has already ridiculed a child’s drawing, kept on the desk of Ann, a senior employee. Bjorn points out that the drawing is all wrong, “because on the horizon there were landmasses sticking up on both sides of the sun, which of course is impossible. Presumably it had some sort of sentimental value to her, even if it wasn’t particularly pleasant for the rest of us to have to look at.”
Bjorn may be unhinged, but when not engaging in his robotic self-justification he does have reflective interludes, such as when he assesses a poorly constructed snowman who lacks a nose. “Whoever had made the snowman hadn’t bothered to find a carrot . . . Maybe they had lost interest halfway through? Such is life . . .” Elsewhere, he watches as Hakan walks away, “his scruffy corduroy jacket reflecting his movements like an extra layer of skin”.
As he battles his ego and his insecurity, Bjorn’s paranoia runs riot. While on a bus he becomes so unsettled by a small child staring at him that he blurts out: “Do we know each other?” There is no reply. “The little girl just went on sucking the dummy.” The child’s mother glares in the background.
It all centres on the room, Bjorn’s forbidden haven. His colleagues take to sneaking on him. Poor Karl just wants to avoid anarchy. The Room feels rushed and is not quite as good as it thinks it is, and there is no doubt that it could have been very good. It is as if Karlsson is playing with ideas without ever fully developing any of them, and there are promising exchanges that then end abruptly. When Karl asks how Bjorn has been spending his recent working days, Bjorn replies: “Why do you want to know?” Karl reminds him that he is the boss.
Understated and laconicBjorn’s interaction with Karl is sketchy and could have evolved into true comedy. The understated, laconic prose just about keeps it all together. Karlsson never quite delivers all that he could, although it is very amusing and familiar to anyone with experience of office politics. Neil Smith’s translation is effective and alert to nuance. Bjorn, a man without a life, is neither sympathetic nor likeable – not that that matters – yet it is the mood of discontented yearning that sustains the narrative.
The Room is far closer to James Thurber than to Franz Kafka, whatever about the influence of The Trial. Bjorn is a calculating and slightly sinister variation of Walter Mitty adrift in a colder, more regimented world in which harsh aspirations and interpersonal ruthlessness have replaced daydreaming about heroic gestures. Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent