If Franz Kafka had written an episode of The Office, it might be The Room.
Except that Kafka’s hero in The Trial is the blameless victim, Joseph K; the protagonist of The Room is more akin to one of the prosecutors.
Jonas Karlsson’s short, charming novella is at once a satirical fable on corporate culture and a rather unnerving tale of an unravelling mind.
It’s narrated by Björn, and like most first-person narratives, his tale is not to be trusted as he is a highly unreliable narrator.
Björn is a civil servant working at something called the Authority. What he does there is not clear, but much like the hero of Office Space, he does fill in a lot of forms.
Unlike the characters in Office Space, however, Björn likes his job, particularly the precision it demands. He divides his workday into fifty-five minute segments; he makes note of the size and layout of the office; he stops lending his coworker “my Staedtler pens with the 0.5 and 0.05 millimeter tips, seeing as I had noted that he seldom, if ever, put the lids back on them.”
The Authority has an open plan; Björn may be the only office worker who longs for a cubicle.
When he discovers a room that seemingly nobody else knows about, he regularly retreats there to work in peace and quiet.
He is appalled by most of his colleagues because of their small talk and “the protracted and completely unstructured discussion about the forthcoming Christmas party,” and the slovenly appearance of one co-worker, Hakan:
He was wearing a shabby blue corduroy jacket, which made an unusually scruffy impression. Particularly when combined with long sideburns, which somehow seemed better suited to the 1970s. I wondered why he hadn’t taken it off … Once when he emptied his pockets out onto the desk i saw he had a whole bundle of crumpled napkins. Several of them appeared to have been used. He looked tired. Maybe he was out every night partying? Either way, he ought to take care to make sure that his work didn’t suffer.
He also has a problem with women, and is particularly bad at reading social cues.
He finds refuge in the room, taking pleasure in its tidiness and restorative effect on him, particularly because the atmosphere induces “a concentration that feels like early mornings at school [and] each line [seems] perfectly connected to the next.”
I raised my elbow and rested it on the shiny metal filing cabinet that stood against one wall. I felt a sense of calm in my body that seemed to cleanse my whole system. An intoxicating feeling of relaxation. A bit like a headache pill.
The problem is that the room doesn’t actually exist. Or does it?
While Björn is happily working away in his secret office space, his colleagues are unnerved by Bjorn’s odd habit of standing beside the wall perfectly still for minutes at a time. He insists the room is right there, and insists that he has even gone in there with several of his coworkers.
Karlsson’s prose is suitably simple and precise, and the layering of mundane details allows for passages filled with mordantly absurd humour, a pervasive tone of dread, and a sense that something is deeply off about Björn.
Jonas Karlsson is a Swedish actor and novelist. The Room was written in 2009 and is the first of his works to be translated into English. I only hope more will follow.
I read The Room as part of the Novella November.