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The Room by Jonas Karlsson
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The Room (2009)

by Jonas Karlsson

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English (23)  Swedish (2)  French (1)  All languages (26)
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I first read Jonas Karlsson's cult favorite this past spring. But when I closed the book I couldn't bring myself to actually write a review. And for a very personal reason: revisiting the white collar office experience was simply too painful, bringing to mind many of my own nasty encounters with coworkers and managers on top of the tedium of pouring over memos, data, correspondence, files and reports.

There's something about an office specializing in accounting, finance, insurance, banking, real estate and the like that thrives on an uptight, constipated mindset, one that I have always found not only abrasive and suffocating but downright disgusting and ugly in the extreme.

However, when recently roaming the stacks at my local library, I espied The Room on the shelf and decided to endure the pain and draw on my years working in various departments and offices within the insurance industry as a young man to write this review where I could link my own day-to-day grey flannel flunky minutes with the narrator's. Here goes:

"I had started work at the Authority two weeks before, and in many respects I was still a newcomer. Even so, I tried to ask as few questions as I could. I wanted to become a person to be reckoned with as quickly as possible." ---------- Ah, the power player! Office as soap opera where the most important thing is to impress the men and women in your little world.

"I worked out a personal strategic framework. I arrived half an hour early each morning and followed my own timetable for the day: fifty-five minutes of concentrated work, then a five-minute break, including toilet breaks. ---------- Narrator Björn wants to follow not the internal rhythms of his body but mimicking a machine by strictly adhering to a clock-driven contrived schedule.

On Ann, a fifty-something coworker; "She had a framed child's drawing near her computer. It showed a sun sinking into the sea. But the drawing was 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 look at." ---------- In this way Björn's mindset accords with others in the office - he wants military-like regimentation where any childlike creative expression is scoffed at.

"The next day my new boss came over to our desk in the big, open-plan office, with his thinning hair and cotton cardigan. His name was Karl, and the cotton cardigan wasn't very new, but looked expensive. He stopped next to Håkan and pointed out, without any introductory pleasantries, that my shoes were dirty." ---------- Did I mention uptight and tight-assed? Managers pronouncing such harsh judgements on trivialities is on a par with jackboot totalitarianism. In many important ways, the office environment of a company or corporation demands more conformity than even states like the Soviet Union or Red China.

"Inhibited people don't see the world the way it really is. . . . A lot of people, more than you'd imagine, think everything's fine. They're happy with things the way they are. They don't see because they're too lazy to allow themselves to have their everyday routines disturbed." ---------- True irony since author Karlsson has Björn working his 55-5 minute schedule and all of his thinking revolving about his position within the office. Office = The World. Björn passing sharp judgement on "inhibited people"! What a joke.

"That night I lay in bed and went through the evening moment by moment. Over and over again. From the frosty greeting and Hannah's strange comments, to the encounter with Margareta from reception, to my strong sense of having been master of the situation. In some ways it was a novel experience. A feeling of power." ---------- The office exerts such a pervasive influence on office workers, over time they think of nothing but the office. Cramped, squeezed and small-minded - as the saying has it: "The mind is a terrible thing to waste."

"I should have seen through her earlier. Obviously she was a junkie. All that smiling. That optimistic outlook. It was a chemically produced friendliness. I'd walked straight into a trap. Being taken in by the surface appearance of a drug user was one of the dangers of being an open, honest person. Never suspecting anything." ---------- May I be spared from ever again being obliged to deal with such "open, honest" people! It shouldn't come as a surprise that relations between men and women in an office setting are nearly always strained. Working year after year in an office has its consequences: sexual energy and sexual feelings become suppressed and twisted.

At one point regarding his special room, Björn is addressed by manager Karl: "You have to appreciate that it upsets the rest of the group when they see you standing like that, in your own little world. It's perfectly all right if you want to do it at home. But not at work. You're scaring the staff. Don't you think you should try socializing with your colleagues a bit more? They say you hardly ever take a break." ---------- It isn't enough to do you job, even if you become a workaholic - the world of the office wants all of you - your heart, your mind, your soul. Years ago I took an improvisational acting class with a bunch of office workers. They couldn't even move their arms and hands beyond a small circle in front of them. The office's influence in action - cutting people off from their own bodies and emotions along with their ability to express themselves.

"Rumors of my success swept through the whole department like a wave. Someone had heard and carried the news to the rest of the group. . . . I tried to read their reactions, but it was difficult as I was constantly having to pretend I hadn't noticed and was preoccupied with my work." ---------- Ah, pretending - the key note to an inauthentic, half-baked, phony life. The perfect company man, a custom fit for office work.

"The loaded atmosphere in there, their infernal obstinacy and united front made my cup run over. I could hear that I was speaking louder than necessary when I was no longer able to hold back the torrent of frustration growing inside me." ---------- But Björn can only take so much. Thus the secret room.

"I realized it was only a matter of time before they forced the door open and got inside and started poking about. I looked round to find somewhere to hie but couldn't see anywhere particularly good. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked into the wall. The wall closed around me, like yogurt around a spoon." ---------- Here's a micro-fiction I wrote years ago in much of the same spirit:

OVERTIME
For many years Neal Merman commuted back and forth to his place of work like the others. It was to an insurance office, a room with blank walls, linoleum floor and forty desks under naked florescent lights. Coming in with regularity, Neal performed the job of an everyday clerk.

This mechanical routine shifted abruptly, however, when Neal became part of his desk. First, the desk absorbed only two fingers, but by the end of that afternoon, his entire left hand was sucked up by the metal. And the following morning Neal’s left leg from the knee down also became part of his desk. So it continued for a week until the only Neal to be seen was a right arm positioned beside a head and neck on the desk top.

When the other clerks arrived in the morning, all of them could see what was left of Neal, head down and pencil in hand, reviewing a file with utmost care. To aid his review, Neal would punch figures into his calculator fluently and with the dexterity of someone who knows he is total command of his skill. Such acumen brought a wry smile to Neal’s face.

One day, Big Bart, the department boss, came by to check on Neal’s files. “Your work, clerk, is better and better, although you are now more desk than flesh and bones.”

“What files do you want me to review today?” Neal asked, still scrutinizing some figures.

“Not too many files, clerk, but enough to keep you.” Big Bart withdrew and Neal followed him with his eyes until his boss could no longer be seen.

Later that same day Neal’s right arm faded into the metal. Then, like a periscope being lowered from the surface of the sea, his neck, jaw and nose sank down, leaving his eyes slightly above the gray slab. Neal looked forward and saw his pencil straight on – a long gleaming yellow cylinder with shiny eraser band at the end. Over the pencil, his telephone swelled like some giant mountain. Hearing the phone ring, Neal instinctively reached for the receiver, but this was only a mental gesture. Neal felt his forehead sinking and closed his eyes.



*Special thanks to Ilse for bringing this unique novel to my attention.


Swedish actor and author Jonas Karlsson, born 1971
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
Ok book, kind of boring. ( )
  sitting_duck | Mar 22, 2018 |
This is a strange, fascinating book. I don't think I've ever "met" a protagonist I had so many feelings about: disdain, sympathy, bewilderment, amusement, frustration, pity, fondness. I'm also still not really sure what happened. The office culture made perfect sense to me, though! ( )
  AngelClaw | Nov 11, 2016 |
למרות שהספר מקורי, ומכיל הבחנות מעניינות על החיים במשרדים גדולים ועל משחקי כוח שם ובמקומות אחרים, הוא חסר מספיק מהות בשביל שיהיה ספר טוב באמת. יותר כמו ראשי תיבות לספר. ( )
  amoskovacs | Nov 8, 2016 |
Terrific book about ambition, alienation, paranoia, isolation, along with relationships in the workplace. A very quick & humorous read, but it is also a very thoughtful & intelligent story. One that I will be pondering for a long time to come.
Highly recommended! ( )
  Icewineanne | Aug 4, 2016 |
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Smith, NeilTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Vi står flera minuter och samtalar med varandra.
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Ett litet barn med napp i munnen såg mig rakt i ögonen en lång stund. Till slut fick jag lov att undra. // - Känner vi varandra? (s.108)
Gråt är för svaga människor. Gråt är ett tecken på ovilja att skärpa till sig och ett sätt för människor med sämre intelligens att ta plats i offentligheten. Gråt hör hemma bland småbarn och lök. (s.109)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0804139989, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:48 -0400)

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.… (more)

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