The Room by Jonas Karlsson
Pub. Date: February 17, 2015
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Hogarth!!)
Summary: Bjorn is a compulsive, exacting 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 coworkers 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 coworkers to try to have him fired, but Bjorn will turn the tables on them with help from his secret room.
Genre: Contemporary, Surrealism, Weird
Recommended for: Fans of short stories and office settings
If January was a month of awesome reads, it looks like February is headed in the opposite direction. Or at least when it comes to translated Nordic fiction. Earlier in the month I reviewed The Rabbit Back Literature Society, a novel that had SUCH a promising blurb, only for the actual story to fall flat. I’m sad to say The Room suffers the same fate.
Bjorn has been recently hired at a government agency called the Authority. He goes about his day-to-day tasks, fully confident in his abilities (perhaps overconfident) and is determined to rise in the ranks. One day while on his five-minute break, Bjorn discovers a room, a private office halfway between the elevator and the restrooms. Whenever he needs to recharge, to gather his wits, he heads to this room…only when he’s in this office, his coworkers see his body standing still up against the wall. What follows is a battle: Bjorn tries to prove the room exists, his coworkers try to have him fired, and eventually Bjorn decides to get the upper hand once and for all.
No. No, no, no. I wanted to love this one. I wanted a fun sci-fi novel, and instead got a complete jackass for a main character. I truly feel Bjorn is the deciding factor here, he’s what will make or break this novel for readers. Unfortunately for me, I hated his character so much the entire book was dragged down and what would have otherwise been a fairly entertaining read became a chore to get through.
Bjorn thinks the world of himself. He’s cocky and NOT in a cool, this-guy-is-pretty-awesome kind of way. He truly believes he’s better than every single person in his office and not only better, but that the rest of his coworkers (including his boss) are all morons:
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 very difficult to explain.
This bit comes just before Bjorn starts raging about the grammar his boss used in an email, going on about how “anyone with a basic understanding of the language” knows about definite articles and this “sloppiness” is acceptable now because of text messages, etc etc. Shut up, Bjorn.
Her skirt was nice, but she was wearing a dull-colored blouse that wasn’t at all attractive. I’d have to remember to tell her not to wear it when she was with me if the two of us were going to get together, I thought.
You’ll all be pleased to know that Margareta has her wits about her and does not get together with him, especially since in the following paragraphs he complains about her smile. HER SMILE. This woman is the receptionist; it’s her job to smile and be friendly.
Hakan was wearing his rather worn, dark blue corduroy jacket that day, and I could feel that it was having a negative effect on me. Blue wasn’t really his color, and the corduroy was soft and threadbare. No substance to it at all. It made me think of poorly stuffed cushions in waiting rooms. It was making me uneasy and unfocused. And even more angry.
This poor man has to share a workspace with Bjorn.
And suddenly I realized the difference between me and my colleagues. I was ahead of them the whole time. By about two weeks. It took them numerous attempts to understand what I could see at the first go. Was it the same thing with the room? Would they stand there one day and discover what I had tried to show them such a long time before? Maybe they were just too immature to see what seemed utterly obvious to me? Was this how Copernicus felt?
Ordinary people can do one thing at a time. I can deal with plenty.
I can literally open this book to any page and find a line where he’s thinking he’s better than everyone or belittling a coworker. Maybe I just don’t get it, perhaps this humor is going completely over my head. I’m all for dark humor, but I saw nothing funny about Bjorn. Readers who enjoy his characterization are practically guaranteed to be a fan of The Room, but I couldn’t stand him.
THAT SAID! Everything else about this novel was great and kept me going when Bjorn’s opinions made me want to throw the book across the room. The plot was so incredibly fascinating, but it felt like it took a backseat. This room, this office that no one else can see. Bjorn is able to completely enter it (and has done a surprising amount of work while hidden away inside). The catch? While he’s in the room, his coworkers see him as standing still facing the wall. Once his phone rang and he showed no signs of even hearing it. He doesn’t respond to their questions and concerns – it’s as though his body was left behind. There’s a scene where Bjorn goes so far as to measure this room and compare it to the building’s blueprints to see how it could all add up. This was FANTASTIC. I would have loved to explore this side more. Unfortunately, once his coworkers notice, The Room turns into a revenge-esque novel.
The other thing The Room had going for it was its length. It clocks in at 186 pages – AND the formatting makes it incredible easy to devour in a sitting. The margins are wide and the chapters are extremely short (some are just a paragraph). The best part for me though, were the deckled edges. Be still, my heart. Sadly, not even your beauty could save this book.
Perhaps you or someone you know might appreciate the humor (or, rather, what tries to pass for it) here, but I certainly didn’t and it makes it difficult trying to think of just WHO I would recommend this to. The office setting is great (I tend to have a weakness for novels set in offices, all going back to 2008 when I fell in love with Douglas Coupland’s JPod) and the mysterious room was both original and captivating. Unfortunately, Bjorn’s superior attitude and degrading remarks to his coworkers overpowered The Room and left a bad taste in my mouth. It could be a poor translation, who knows. The author, Jonas Karlsson, is a famous actor in Sweden who received glowing reviews for his plays and decided to try his hand at a novel. Honestly, I can see The Room working as a play – the chapters read like a play. A novel though? Sorry, this one isn’t for me.