Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Room

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.


If I were to describe my perfect office it would look very much like this. In fact my office at home does or at least did when it was first set up. The carpet’s not green but I would prefer it if it was; green’s my favourite colour in almost all its shades. I don’t have a filing cabinet per se but I have two sets of drawers and two cupboards fixed together, one of which serves as a wardrobe. It was important that I have a space to call my own, which was mine exclusively, a sanctum sanctorum, a den. When my wife was house hunting—it was she that found this flat; I was too busy working—I placed only two conditions on her: 1) no garden (hate gardens) and 2) enough rooms so we could each have our own office and both were, happily, met. Virginia Woolf's believed that, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” and if a woman needs her own room it stands to reason that a man should too.

Of course Björn, in Jonas Karlsson’s novella The Room, is not a writer but the principle applies. For most of my working life I’ve been a bureaucrat of one kind of another and that includes two stints working for the government. It’s a job that I discovered suited me down to the ground and one I was good at. I like putting things in order. There is comfort in order. Only once, however, have I had an office of my own, one with a door, and I loved it. In job interviews it’s common to ask the prospective employee if they work better on their own or as part of a group. It’s a trick question and one I’ve never answered truthfully. I work much better on my own, much, much better.

I mention the above just to underline how much I found myself bonding with Björn from the very start and it was with some disappointment that I started to go off him. A lot of you will find him irritating from the jump but he’ll get away with it for a few pages because you’ll assume he’s a tad OCD or autistic and by that I mean he’s a bit at odds with the rest of the world and “normal” people confuse him when they’re not actually irritating him:

Håkan sat on the other side of my desk. We worked opposite one another. At any moment we might happen to look up and meet each other’s gaze. I tried never to look straight ahead whenever I looked up from my work. Håkan carried out his duties with the same lightness of touch as everyone else in the department. He used the phone more or less as he liked, took breaks whenever he felt like it. He would spend ages gazing off into the distance without it apparently having anything to do with work. Now and then he would try to talk to me as well. I would rebuff him gently but firmly. Usually with a simple gesture of the hand. Arm out, palm raised towards him. It worked.

Björn is the newest member of staff in this department—there are twenty-three people in total—and he struggles to fit in. From the above you can see why. He really doesn’t know how to deal with people. He makes a half-hearted effort to get on with Ann whom he recognises as “the social queen of the department” but either he’s picked the wrong time and she’s too busy to chat or she snubs him on general principles but he finds himself standing dumbly beside her looking at a child’s drawing:

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 have to look at.


I stood 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? No matter what the circumstances, the child, or grandchild, deserved to be made aware of its mistake so that the error could be avoided next time. If things like that weren’t pointed out, its marks for drawing would certainly be negatively impacted.

Eventually he sidles off.

It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Björn. It’s tough being the new guy but we’ve all been there. And there’s usually nowhere to hide bar the loo and how long in all seriousness can one spend on the loo and expect people not to wonder what you’re up do in there? Björn is a practical sort though and buries himself in his new job:

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. I requested and took home files documenting previous policy decisions so as to be able to study which phrases recurred, and formed the basic vocabulary, so to speak. I spent evenings and weekends studying various structures and investigating the informal communication networks that existed within the department.

All this so that I could quickly and efficiently catch up and create a small but decisive advantage over my colleagues, who were already familiar with our workplace and the pervading conditions.

Once we’ve ruled out the OCD and the autism you might start to wonder if he’s suffering from a superiority complex. He’s not. As far as he’s concerned he is superior and he has his eyes on his boss’s ergonomic chair from the first time he gets called into his office. So he’s ambitious. I was too. Since my teens I’ve always arrived early for work and taken work home. I never wanted anyone to be able to suggest I’d not earned any promotion that came my way. Somehow I managed to do all this and get on with my colleagues. Mostly. Not always. But I never had my own room. For the bulk of my time in offices I’ve found myself in a bank of four desks and for a short while I was in a group where all four of us were called Jim. That was fun.

But back to Björn. He’s got this new job with “the Authority” although it’s never made very clear what the organisation stands for or even what Björn’s duties are:

Uneventful days. Days without any particular character. Days which at first glance didn’t appear to have led to much. Days that no one pays any attention to. Every day there came more and more documents from the investigators on the sixth and seventh floors, all of them waiting to be turned into framework decisions.


On the fourth floor we worked exclusively with three- and four-figure documents. The framework decisions from one to ten were almost never changed now, and those in double-figures were dealt with by considerably more senior administrators on the floors above. No one in my department had ever worked with a single- or double-digit decision.

Framework decisions are similar to directives in that they require people to achieve particular results without dictating the means of achieving that result.

Bored already? Yeah, it takes a certain kind of individual to work in a place like this and not go off his trolley. Back in the seventies I had one of those little figures on my desk. You know the one: “You don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps.” It’s a joke. We all get it. Ha Ha! But maybe there’s just a smidgen of truth there. And, on one level, this is what this book is about.

We all live in our own world. My reality is not your reality. Brain research is proving this without a doubt. Each of us experiences the world uniquely. In Björn’s reality there is a room between the toilets and recycling bin. He discovers it on his first day there looking for the toilets.

Oh, I thought. A room.

I opened the door, then shut it. No more than that.

The second time he’s looking for photocopy paper. This time he takes a moment to look around and he likes the feel of the place. So much so that he finds himself thinking about the room more and more. The third time he goes there just to be in the room:

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.

We all get where he’s coming from. Even if we don’t have a physical room to escape to we all do have a quiet place, a place we can be alone with our own thoughts if only on the bus on the way home from work. There’s even one online. I used to know a teacher at school who would go into her cupboard periodically clearly just to get a break from us, little shits that we were. But here's the twist: no one else can see the room apart from Björn. And this is where things get interesting.

The blurb says:

The Room is a short, sharp and fiendish fable in the tradition of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Charlie Kauffman. If you have ever toiled in an office, felt like the world was against you or questioned the nature of reality then this is the novel for you.

The Kafka I get—although, to be fair, the term Kafkaesque is bandied about by marketers far too much—the Kauffman too, but as a guy who’s read, seen and listened to every scrap of fiction Beckett ever wrote I can’t really see the connection. The only bureaucrats that I can think of are in the play Rough for Theatre II and although some of Beckett’s rooms can be very tidy—Eh Joe jumps to mind—it’s not really what you think of when you think of Beckett plus every one of his rooms ends up a place of torments and not salvation. The main office perhaps owes a little to Pinter but even there I’m stretching it. To be honest The Room probably has more in common with Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which is a satire of the American workplace, than anything else. The tone also reminded me a little of Naïve. Super.

In Blair Rose’s review she suggests The Room is open to a number of interpretations—a satire of office culture, a psychological drama, a mystery and/or a comment on workplace bullying and the way we respond to mental illness—and they’re all valid—alternatively, Ian Sansom in his review for The Guardian, goes with "File under Comedy, Tragedy, Quirky, Profound, Sad, Slight, Silly, Urban Myth, and Unclassifiable”—and that, to my mind, is what makes this book stand out; if it has anything in common with Beckett that’s it.

This was the first book I read after Satantango and it’s hard to imagine two books as different. Having read several reviews I can tell you one thing: this is a book you’ll be itching to talk about when you’ve finished it. But, of course, I can’t here.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.


Jonas Karlsson was born in Salem in 1971. One of Sweden’s most prominent actors, Karlsson has performed on Sweden’s premier stage and in several acclaimed feature films and television series. He won a Guldbagge Award for Best Actor in 2004 for the film Details. In 2005, Karlsson made his debut as a playwright, earning rave reviews from audience and critics alike. Spurred by the joy of writing for the stage, Karlsson began writing fiction and in 2007 his first collection of short stories came out. The Room, which first appeared in Swedish in his second collection Den perfekte vännen (The Perfect Friend), is the first of his work to be translated into English. The second, The Invoice, was published in January 2016.

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