Björn, the narrator of Jonas Karlsson’s satirical novel The Room, has just started a new job at the Authority when he makes a discovery. “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.”
The only “remarkable” thing about the room seems to be that none of Björn’s co-workers know it’s there, despite the fact that it’s located “round the corner, past the toilets.” The room becomes Björn’s special place to unwind; it even features a full-length mirror which makes him look a little more attractive than usual.
In a recent appearance at the Bay Area Book Festival, Karlsson said The Room was inspired by an experience he had at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where he is a company member. Sitting in the wings, waiting to go onstage, he imagined a secret room, perhaps one where the theater’s onetime managing director, Ingmar Bergman, would spend private moments writing in a notebook.
The Room may be written by a Swede (albeit one who admits he’s never worked in an office), but the character of Björn will probably remind viewers of NBC’s “The Office” of the character Dwight Schrute: he feels superior to most of his colleagues, certain that he is the most efficient and hardest working person in his department. A receptionist who doesn’t respond to his awkward advances must be “a junkie… Being taken in by the surface appearance of a drug user was one of the dangers of being an open, honest person.” His co-worker Håkan must have “a hidden agenda… His hair, his sideburns, his scruffy jacket; it all suggested a set of values different from the ones that we in the department live by.”
At just under 200 pages (with 65 chapters), The Room is a brief, breezy read, fun but relatively insubstantial. At his Book Festival talk, Karlsson responded to an audience member who wondered if he would ever turn to writing crime fiction (he’s Swedish, after all!). He said that while his publisher would probably love that, he doesn’t plan to try his hand at the genre. Still, The Room does have a “mystery” at its core: does Björn’s sanctuary actually exist, or is it all in his mind? If he continues to spend time there, will his co-workers assume he’s crazy, which could turn into an H.R. nightmare?
Björn may sometimes be hard for the reader to sympathize with, but upon finishing the book, I suspect most of us will wish we had a room like his: a secret place where upon entering, you suddenly become much more productive, serene and even better-looking.