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THE ROOM by Jonas Karlsson


by Jonas Karlsson ; translated by Neil Smith

Pub Date: Feb. 17th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-8041-3998-4
Publisher: Crown

Could a banal office act as an incubator of madness? That’s the question posed in this provocative fictional debut by a prominent Swedish actor.

The Authority is a government department in Stockholm. Its purpose is obscure; its days may be numbered. The unreliable narrator, Björn, starts work there after being eased out of another civil service job. He’s a loner who sees himself competing against the other paper-pushers, rebuffing help from a co-worker. Björn discovers the titular room early on. Its door is next to the toilets. It has standard office equipment and is apparently unused. The room gives him energy, but does it really exist? Where he sees a door, his colleagues just see a wall and are disturbed by his standing motionless against it for minutes on end. Karl, the weak-willed boss, calls a meeting at which the staff sound off. Björn doesn’t give an inch. He’s as intractable as Melville’s Bartleby, but while that tragic lost soul aroused compassion, Björn alienates the “little people” with his haughty defiance, though he allows that “I am prepared to forgive you.” Karlsson laces his narrator’s megalomania with hints that stultifying work and an acquiescent office culture can drive a person to extremes. The twist comes when Björn steals a co-worker’s project and does a vastly better job with it. Suddenly he’s hot! His expertise, which he insists on attributing to the “room,” attracts the attention of the Authority’s director. Should Björn be allowed to indulge his obsession? Karl, the hapless bureaucrat, tries to make folks happy with the formula “the room does not exist for everyone.” Nobody is appeased; the director must decide; Björn’s fate hangs in the balance.

Karlsson’s deft jab at dead-end workplaces keeps you agreeably off-balance and eager for more of his work.