Jonas Karlsson - Funny, clever, surreal, and thought-provoking, this Kafkaesque novel introduces the unforgettable Bjorn, an exceptionally meticulous office worker striving to live life on his own terms
Jonas Karlsson, The Room, Hogarth, 2015.
Funny, clever, surreal, and thought-provoking, this Kafkaesque masterpiece introduces the unforgettable Bjorn, an exceptionally meticulous office worker striving to live life on his own terms.
Bjorn is a compulsive, meticulous bureaucrat who discovers a secret room at the government office where he works--a secret room that no one else in his office will acknowledge. When Bjorn is in his room, what his co-workers see is him standing by the wall and staring off into space looking dazed, relaxed, and decidedly creepy. Bjorn's bizarre behavior eventually leads his co-workers to try and have him fired, but Bjorn will turn the tables on them with help from his secret room.
Debut author Jonas Karlsson doesn't leave a word out of place in this brilliant, bizarre, delightful take on how far we will go--in a world ruled by conformity--to live an individual and examined life.
"File under Comedy, Tragedy, Quirky, Profound, Sad, Slight, Silly, Urban Myth, and Unclassifiable. The Room is a simple book about almost nothing, with no reference to anything outside itself, with no grand subject and no great style and yet which seems utterly inevitable and is thoroughly enjoyable." - Ian Sansom
"(S)urprisingly zippy (.....) This is a very funny book about a magical room, but it is also a familiar, humane story about alienation and intolerance, set during a bleak Swedish winter." - Jonathan Mcaloon
“The Room is the most effective chapbook on workplace comportment since Glengarry Glen Ross. Hats off!” —Nick Offerman
“A gripping, tense, demonic fable in which the unease is precision-tooled and the turns of the screw wholly unexpected.” —Neel Mukherjee
“Karlsson deftly captures individual voices, which he conveys directly (as Björn reveals his obsessions) and indirectly (as Björn describes interactions with coworkers). Using Björn’s voice to draw characters and build dramatic tension, Karlsson exposes the gifts and gaffes, visions and delusions, and the rise and fall of a seemingly ordinary civil servant.” —Publishers Weekly
“A contemporary tale worthy of comparison to Franz Kafka’s works, Amélie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling, and Herman Melville’s classic ‘Bartelby, the Scrivener,’ while the antics of Björn’s fellow workers recall Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. Enjoyable reading, extremely well executed, this fable should become mandatory reading for cubicle and office workers everywhere.” —Library Journal (starred)
“Part psychological drama documenting a disturbed man’s possible descent into madness and part satirical take on corporate culture and the alienated workers it produces, Karlsson succeeds admirably in creating the perfect combination of funny, surreal, and disturbing.” —Booklist
“Provocative…Karlsson’s deft jab at dead-end workplaces keeps you agreeably off-balance and eager for more of his work.” —Kirkus
“Fascinating.… Every time you think you know where Bjorn is heading, he does or says something that tilts the whole story. Minimalism and surrealism, bundled in a short but powerful novel.” —DeZondag (Netherlands)
The Room is narrated by Björn, and begins two weeks after he has started a new job, "at the Authority". What exactly the entity does is unclear, but the department Björn is in seems to deal mainly with reports from investigators, number-coded as to their importance: Björn's department works on "three- and four-figure documents", while: "considerably more senior administrators on the floor above" handle double-figure documents (while a lower-level department handles those in the five digits).
Björn is very sure of himself, and his abilities, but he also has a very blinkered view of the world and everything around him. He sees things his way, and isn't very open to other points of view or opinions. It's safe to assume he was encouraged to leave his previous position because they had had enough of him -- as do, soon enough, his new colleagues.
Björn quickly adopts a precise routine at work, but also finds a sort of sanctuary, an apparently unused but fully furnished room. The problem is that when he retreats there ... well, his colleagues don't quite see it that way. In fact, they don't see that room at all.
Björn is insistent, and Björn likes to get his way; reality, too, turns out to be flexible, at least when it's in the interest of the Authority. As Björn's boss explains to his frustrated underlings:
"Either there is a room there, or there isn't," Ann said.
"It's not quite that simple," Karl said.
Showing some initiative (and stealth), Björn engineers a change of fortune for himself, moving from a position of weakness -- his colleagues think he's delusional and want him fired, and he's given the most basic keep-busy tasks (which he dutifully performs without complaint) -- to one of strength, as he makes himself invaluable to the Authority.
Presented entirely from Björn's point of view, The Room is a creepily amusing workplace novel. Whatever his talents -- and he apparently has some -- Björn is a horrible co-worker; his inability to see how he's seeing things wrong is often funny, but also rather unsettlingly so. Author Karlsson does a nice job in capturing the voice and mind of this odd duck; it's hard to sympathize with the character, but it's a reasonably interesting rabbit hole he draws readers down into. - M.A.Orthofer
I remember seeing some sort of promotional video or late night informercial type thing for The Secret a few years back and thinking, “What the heck?” There was this broke guy sitting in a chair with his eyes closed pretending to drive a sports car and there was a kid who really wanted a new bicycle in the worst way possible and went to bed imagining how glorious riding it would be. Both of these people apparently used nothing but the power of thought to get what they wanted (though I should mention that the kid actually wrote down his wish on a scrap of paper and placed it under his pillow for someone to find) from the universe. Yeah, right. C’mon. Still, there’s a little piece of me that wonders, is it possible to want something so badly that somehow, even when it seems utterly hopeless and all but impossible, it eventually becomes part of your reality? That’s only one of the many questions raised in debut author Jonas Karlsson’s sensational little Kafkaesque novella The Room, but it’s probably the most important.
Bjorn works for an organization known only as The Authority. What they do, and what he and his co-workers are supposed to do for them exactly, is pretty unclear. Their jobs seem to revolve around writing up decisions that have been made by a Director General, but how these write-ups actually affect anything in the real world is left unexplored. The work place, which is the setting for the entire story, comes across loud and clear as the sort of banal, cubicle infested office space that most of us have had to spend time in at one point or another to make ends meet. Bjorn? He’s the quirky, irritating guy that doesn’t quite manage it to fit in with everyone else. He’s the one that thinks he knows it all, and should thus be in charge of managing everything and everyone around him. You know the guy I’m talking about. Everybody’s had the frustrating experience of having a Bjorn in their life at one point or another. Now you get the unique opportunity to flip the script and see the world through their eyes instead.
Guess what. You’re just as annoying to them as they are to you.
From the get go our Bjorn is pretty well convinced of his superiority and inadvertently alienates his co-workers in spectacular fashion with his repeated attempts to correct what he sees as their glaringly obvious defects:
Stupid people don’t always know that they’re stupid. They might be aware that something is wrong, they might notice that things don’t usually turn out the way they imagined, but very few of them think it’s because of them. That they’re the root of their own problems, so to speak. And that sort of thing can be difficult to explain.
This outlook, combined with the fact that he’s discovered a door exactly halfway between the bathroom and the elevator—a door that opens to a small office, a door that everyone else claims does not exist—leads to all manner of misunderstandings and all sorts of hilarity. It’s hard to say any more than this without utterly wrecking things for potential readers, but rest assured that The Room is a tight, mesmerizing piece of surrealist fiction. Its depictions of cutthroat office politics, slanderous employee gossiping, and irritatingly subpar management practices are piercingly spot on and are sure to find anyone who’s ever felt like a trapped worker drone sitting in the cubicle farm from Hell nodding along in blithesome agreement.
Major credit is due to translator Neil Smith, who skillfully navigates the complexities of Karlsson’s original prose and nails the tone, presenting a stellar recreation of its playful intent, while at the same time keeping the reader guessing as to who to believe is actually in the right. When all is said and done, is the room a product of Bjorn’s overactive imagination or has he been made to bear the brunt of an intricately staged bit of office hazing? Ultimately each reader will have judge that answer for themselves, for the life experiences that each individual carries with them into a reading of The Room will play an integral role in shaping any lessons they will walk away from it having learned.
Quick note: The colophon for The Room states: “Originally published in Sweden as “Rummet” in the collection Den Perfekta Vannen, published by Wahlstrom & Widstrand, Stockholm, in 2009.” C’mon Hogarth, where’s the rest of Karlsson’s stories? There’s eight more in the original collection! Please tell us you’ve got big, big plans to make the rest of his work available in English (and have it all translated by Neil Smith) very soon. - Aaron Westerman