The Room by Jonas Karlsson
Translated by Neil Smith
There’s a well-worn office cliché: ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!’ Something that definitely applies to the employees of the Authority in Jonas Karlsson’s engaging novel. What the Authority does is never specified, but the higher the floor you work on, the more important the case you are dealing with.
Björn has recently started working at the Authority having reached the limit of achievement in his old job, as agreed with his former boss. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines from the start to see that Björn is not a natural at fitting in, and his old boss was delighted to have found him a new ‘better’ job at the Authority.
So Björn occupies his new desk in the middle of the floor, opposite Håkan, fractionally irritated there is no partition between them, and more irritated when Håkan’s papers threaten to cross the divide between them, (the latter will really bug Björn, until he comes up with an inspired solution which I couldn’t possibly divulge). Björn has his own particular way of working too:
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. I avoided any unnecessary socialising along the way.
Anyway, life carries on, and one day after a couple of weeks there Björn is on his way to the toilets when he sees an open door in the wall. He’d not noticed it before. He peers in, sees nothing of interest, and carries on around the corner. Another day he is looking for photocopy paper, and sees the open door again. This time he goes in.
It was a fairly small room. A desk in the middle. A computer, files on a shelf. Pens and other office equipment. Nothing remarkable. But all of it in perfect order.
Neat and tidy.
Against one wall stood a large, shiny filing cabinet with a desk fan on top of it. A dark-green carpet covered the floor. Clean. Free from dust. Everything neatly lined up. It looked slightly studied. Prepared. As if the room were waiting for someone.
Björn adopts the room and begins to slope off there whenever he can, finding its private space really conducive to good work. However, he presents a totally different picture to his colleagues, who don’t understand him, who feel threatened by him, and critically who can’t see the room! All they see is Björn standing by the wall, staring at them.
Björn tries to convince them about the room’s existence, but they’re not having it. Björn thinks his colleagues are basically idiots, or on drugs. It’s not a good situation is it? I couldn’t possible say any more about the plot of this creepy comedy about office life to avoid spoiling things for you.
The Room is funny and becomes more and more unhinged as the suspense mounts. Björn is isn’t inherently a bad person, but he is a jobsworth, and so confident in his own abilities that he can’t cope with others’ differences. Poor Håkan is particularly put upon by him, but he’s not the only one to suffer Björn’s scorn by a long chalk. I loved Karlsson’s fun portrayal of all the office stereotypes, the unwitting audience for Björn’s antics. The Authority is naturally proof of the Peter Principle at work, in which people in a hierarchy tend to rise to “a level of respective incompetence”.
First published in 2009, translated in 2015, The Room is told in snappy short chapters, enhanced by line drawings of doors, offices, equipment and stationery, at 167 pages this novel is an easy one-session read. A cautionary tale which I really enjoyed a lot.
Don’t just take my word for it, read Karen’s review at Bookertalk here.
Source: Own copy. Hogarth Press hardback, 167 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
18 thoughts on “#NordicFINDS – Sweden Week – A Workplace Drama”
I like to say, “You don’t have to be Mad to run a book blog, but it helps.”
BTW, I probably have never read 167 pages in one sitting.
With the drawings and all the half blank pages at ends of short chapters as well as the well spaced text, it’s nowhere near 167 normal text pages in reality. 😀
I remember really liking this one. Workplaces are a great source of tragicomedy. I reviewed this when it first came out https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/review-of-the-room-by-jonas-karlsson-transl-neil-smith/
Love your review. I wish there were more workplace comedies and tragicomedies, they are few and far between and office politics is so interesting seen from the outside rather than being in it! Lightning Rods by Helen De Witt is one of the very best I’ve encountered – did you read that one?
No, thanks for the tip! I love People in Glass Houses by Shirley Hazzard, about a UN type of organisation. Since my father worked for one of the UN agencies, I can safely say she was quite accurate about things! (And hilarious)
I’ve never read any Shirley Hazzard – I’ve associated her, obviously wrongly, with serious and wordy novels, so I’ll add it to my list of books to look out for. 🙂
Well, this one is an excellent place to start – not necessarily typical of her other books, but very satirical.
I enjoyed this one, too, although it brought back a few uncomfortable memories of office life, territorial skirmishes, in particular (not mine!).
Being in the middle of office politics is awful, but the schadenfreude generated by reading it on the page makes it such fun!
As a veteran of various offices, I do like the sound of this – particularly as it sounds like it has a quirky edge!
Definitely quirky and good fun.
Another excellent novel about harsh office politics is ‘Underground Time’ by French writer Delphine de Vigan.
Here is my review:
Thanks for the recommendation. I’d not heard of this one by Dephine de Vigan. I’ve enjoyed others by her, so will add this to my list to look out for.
Verrrry tempting, I must say — get thee behind me, Sa–, er, Annabel!
Thanks so much for the mention Annabel. I did enjoy this, especially because all the time I was giving thanks that I never had to work in an open plan office.
I did not know about this book by him. Great review, must read look for the book. He writes so funny. The few times I laugh when I read come from his books.
Does he have others available in translation do you know?