The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Our Rating

The Observer, January 2015

New year, same old office politics – a world in which missed tea runs, excessive time on Facebook or cigarette breaks somehow take on as much significance as, well, any actual work that might incidentally take place. The utter banality of office life has been skewered perfectly by the likes of Joshua Ferris and Ricky Gervais in recent years, but Swedish author and actor Karlsson takes the workplace novel into decidedly more surreal territory.

The set-up is intriguing: his protagonist, Björn, has begun work at a new, faintly Orwellian company called The Authority. Björn is not in the least bit interested in making friends – immediately, there’s something odd about him – and great credit to translator Neil Smith for finding such a disconnected, flat, almost robotic tone. However, he finds a secret room on his way to the toilets and once inside feels a sense of both great power and peace. There, he can write sparkling reports that have his bosses beaming with pleasure.

The nightmare is that none of his co-workers can see this room. They just watch a weird man staring at a wall for ages – and conspire to get him fired. It’s here that Karlsson’s manipulation of the reader is so clever – Björn isn’t likable but he is being bullied. It’s difficult not to fall for him just a little bit when, finally, he says: “The snow had turned to rain and for a moment I thought it might have leaked into the flat when I felt the first traces of wetness on my cheeks.”

Sadly, it’s also at this point that The Room loses its way slightly. The ending is muddled and some terrible cod philosophy about the human condition starts to creep in (“we want to earn a lot, eat well and generally have a nice time… in these terms we are relatively simple creatures”). Still, The Room’s brevity is a virtue – it should certainly fill a lunch-break or two.

 

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