Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Jonas Karlsson's 'The Room': the Bjorn Legacy

*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Jonas Karlsson’s The Room sets the struggle for individuality in what is often thought of as the most banal, mundane and conformist of settings – the office. Bjorn works for the ambiguously named Authority. He plans out his daily work routine meticulously and displays compulsive behaviour in his navigation of work relations. His only escape from this routine is the mysterious room which no one else will admit exists. Yet when Bjorn believes himself to be in this room, his colleagues only see him lurking vacantly and unsettlingly by the wall. As office tensions escalate the banal begins to intersect with questions of individualism, metaphysics and ontology. The very nature of being, existence and truth is called into question. Karlsson’s sharp and compelling satire is both witty and unsettling, perceptive and ambiguous, and ultimately forces you to make up your own mind.

Bjorn is pedantic, convinced of his own superiority and utterly unable to relate emotionally to those around him. Yet like Meursault in Camus’ L’Etranger (The Outsider), he is oddly likable. He is a kind of anti-hero, both the office’s most efficient worker and inadvertently its most disruptive influence.

His observations of office life are great to read, they are rational and calculated to the extreme, devoid of emotional considerations. In one chapter he lingers by the desk of one of his female colleagues, studying a picture she has pinned by her desk. He stands there ‘for a while, looking at the badly drawn child’s picture of a sunset, and wondered if she was aware of its flagrant inaccuracy. Maybe she was blinded by her emotional involvement?’. Being solely in Bjorn’s head makes the narrative unreliable, but the extent of its unreliability is open to interpretation. Is he mentally ill? Or is he the only truly sane person there? Should the book be read and held to the standards of logic and realism? Or is it a kind of metaphor? It works on both levels. Bjorn certainly sees himself as ‘the person who had dared to break the pattern and think along new lines, the person who had dared to think ‘outside the box’’ and is convinced that he is being persecuted and tricked by the mob. His colleagues are distinctly lacking in sympathy if he is mentally ill - in fact, many are cruel and mocking. Karlsson thus alludes to social issues of mental health in the workplace without making them wholly explicit.

Jonas Karlsson
Bjorn’s own observations are extreme and perhaps unfair, but still valid. He marks out all around him as ‘inhibited people’ who don’t see the ‘nuances’, they ‘think everything’s fine… they don’t see the faults because they’re too lazy to allow themselves to have their everyday routines disturbed. They think that as long as they do their best, everything will work out okay. You have to remind them. You have to show people like that what their shortcomings are.’ It’s harsh and it’s arrogant but I think sometimes we look to literature for observations like these. We need someone to make them. Whether it is because he appears an underdog in the war for the office, Bjorn is a sympathetic character. There is one moment of clear emotion which stayed with me and is very moving:

‘I suddenly felt how lonely it is, constantly finding yourself the only person who can see the truth in this gullible world. I turned off the radio and went and stood by the window, looking out. 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.’

Bjorn’s somewhat ineffective boss, Karl, and his colleague John are the only ones who defend him, however feebly. John, in particular, evokes the more metaphysical themes of the book when he stands up besides Bjorn and declares that ‘maybe we’ve reached a point now where this room has a certain significance. And on these terms then it obviously does exist’. When Ann responds that ‘either there is a room or there isn’t’, Karl protests that ‘it’s not quite that simple’, which should probably be the tagline for the story.

If, like me, you like the work of Beckett, Camus and Kafka then this is going to be a very satisfying read, that is, if you enjoy the satisfaction of ambiguity and multiple interpretations. Others may find these same qualities frustrating. The language is sharp, clear and incisive with meticulously accurate and detailed but unembellished descriptions. It is sparse and direct, in keeping with Bjorn’s character and the setting. For something that sounds and appears so bare and simple it is a richly complex and refreshing read.

Further analysis and comparison:

Reading The Room brought to mind a number of other similar reading experiences I have had and a few texts which I think share and can illuminate the themes. These are the aforementioned The Outsider by Camus, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I mainly wanted to look at and compare some of the endings – all share a similar build-up of tension and then reach a very charged climax which resist conventional plot resolution.

The ending of The Room:

‘When I got to the room I opened the door, then closed and locked it behind me as quickly as I could. For a brief while I could breathe again and think more or less clearly. I leaned against the wall and let my eyes roam around the familiar space. Everything looked much the same, yet somehow different. I could hear the others outside. They were there already, knocking on the door. Banging on the wood. They wouldn’t be happy to stay on the outside this time. The blows were getting harder and harder. I realised it was only a matter of time before they forced the door open and got inside and started poking about. I looked around to find somewhere to hide 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. In there it was dark and soft. Surprisingly clean and free from lines and edges. No angles or corners for dirt to get into and hide. No light no sound. The smell in there made me think of the sea, and lilacs, and St Paulsgatan by the junction with Bellmansgatan at five o’clock in the morning at the end of May.

I could hear them calling my name outside, and I thought: you’ll never find me here.’

So Bjorn makes a break for the room, followed by the angry office mob. The room is clearly a place of solace for Bjorn throughout the text. In it he finds understanding he can’t find in the modern world. There is quiet and a regularity which is also flexible. It is a place of his own in which he can express himself. This notion of freedom (of expression and of creation) allows him to walk in to the wall, for it to close around him like yoghurt. The wall is soft, clean and free – there is nothing threatening or misleading or oppressive. The final line oozes defiance and triumph – tainted with a similar loathing (or a sense of the unhinged) which can be found in Meursault’s final lines and the end of The Yellow Wallpaper.

The ending of The Outsider/L’Etranger:

I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realised that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy. For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.’ – The Outsider, Albert Camus (from Joseph Laredo’s translation for Penguin Modern Classics)

Both protagonists are marked by hysteria at the end of their narratives – experiencing a kind of cathartic climax and sense of power – or an embrace of powerlessness and absurdity. They embrace the ‘cries of hatred’ from potential or actual spectators, finding release in their own personal happiness and indifference. Meursault, throughout his narrative, has been similarly non-conformist and emotionally detached, defined by an action or actions that no one else understands and want to punish. They are both in varying degrees of existentialist narrative, confronting the Absurdity (man’s search for meaning in the universe vs the universe’s indifference. See Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus) around them. Bjorn sees it in the office and the practices and routines of his colleagues. He sees it, for instance, in the child’s drawing on the wall. At the end of each narrative both Meursault and Bjorn seem to embrace the freedom that comes from living with Absurdity – the meaningless of what is around them - something their colleagues or spectators could not cope with.  

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a victim of patriarchal oppression and the ‘rest cure’ which leads to her seeing moving shapes in the wallpaper of the room she is kept in. The line ‘there are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will’ really ties in to Bjorn’s relationship with his room, particularly at the end.

The ending of The Yellow Wallpaper:

‘”I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall so that I had to creep over him every time!’

In what appears to be a state of madness, which she has been driven to by her husband and carer, the protagonist celebrates her triumph and escape. In trying to mute her self-expression and freedom, they drove her mad, leading her to find a kind of solace and identification in the wallpaper.

Then there is the governess in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. There are similarities in that she believes she sees ghosts and that the children are controlled by evil spirits. Nobody else fully believes her, she seems to grow more paranoid and hysterical (though the reading of woman-as-hysterical is misogynistic and I don’t agree with it) as the novella goes on. It ends with one of the children seeming to confirm her suspicions - she clutches at him passionately and he ambiguously dies in her arms. These protagonists are driven to varying degrees of emotional outburst – unlike what they have displayed or experienced before. 

Are they victims or villains? It is not that simple.

These are just a few comparisons that popped into my head as I read and are meant as a starting point for discussion/thought. All of these texts work on different levels and their themes are not straightforward. There’s an element of the gothic (perhaps not in L’Etranger) and the psychological in them, despite the huge differences in where they’ve come from and the times in which they were written. They all concern a kind of battle against oppressive forces that are denying them certain kinds of expression and freedom. And they all absolutely depend on the immersion, implication and involvement of the reader so if you’re willing to go deep, dive in! 

*UPDATE 15/01/2015 The Room is released today! Check out the amazing videos submitted for the Kingston Animation Competition - run by Vintage. I particularly love the Winner and the Runner-up. They're a good sample of the book's themes. You can hear readings from the book here:

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