This Month Artizan Street Reading Group Discuss

The Room by Jonas Karlsson

RoomThis time we had Jonas Karlsson’s The room, his short account of madness in the office. And it should have come, according to Malcolm, with a prominent health warning: ‘First person male autistic narrative!’ Because we have done enough of these by now – a view echoed by Janet. We’ve had Haddon’s Curious incident. Banks’ The quarry, Simsion’s The Rosie Project and now this. A genre of its own alright, but not one we expected to adopt as a specialism.

Put simply it is the fancied account of an office worker who announces his superiority to his colleagues, behaves annoyingly toward them, and frequently retreats to a room which only he can see, whereas to others he appears to be standing next to a blank wall. Acting in this way, he nevertheless becomes a prized worker, producing reports far superior to those of the others, but is finally forbidden to indulge his fantasy and records being pursued as he transgresses, entering the room and being engulfed by its inner wall.

Sara and Jenny had liked the book’s spareness of style, and Tim had found it suspenseful enough to engage him. Of course the central appeal of the book, we agreed, is the chord it strikes with many of us who have worked in an office environment and have encountered people with what we might politely call ‘inappropriate’ traits of behaviour. So we look quite carefully at what goes on and maybe the first thing we notice is… it’s Swedish, with ad hoc democratic meetings in the boss’s office, prohibitions on outdoor footwear, etc (Rory makes the point).

Then the author’s trick is causal lacunae, gaps in the narrative chain: if the room is imaginary, how come the narrator manages not only to fiddle with the drawers, but actually produces written reports within its walls? If he is necking the receptionist for an hour inside it, how come she afterwards betrays no complicity? And what, Jenny wanted to know, was the point of the light-switch to the room being located on the wall outside? So the rational explanation is that the author presents an ‘unreliable narrator’, victim of his delusions.

Was it, Sara wanted to know, really like Kafka? None of us thought so. Maybe wannabe Kafka. And how did it compare with really disturbing stuff like Dostoevsky’s The double? Too tame. Maybe the clue was that the author is a well-known (in Sweden anyway) actor. You have to imagine the story being performed in the method tradition (see Tim’s picture) And the wall the narrator stands beside, according to Sara’s trenchant aperçu, is no other than the ‘fourth wall’ which the actor must penetrate to confront his audience! Brilliant.

And did we laugh? Sara and Rory admitted to a chortle or two. What worried Malcolm was that all of these 1st person male autism things are essentially exploitative, however caring and understanding they may present themselves as being, like Haddon’s Incident. Wasn’t it all about mental health in the end?

Anyway, we’re getting right away from this sort of thing with our next pick, Javier Marias’ murder novel, The infatuations. We meet 6pm Monday 23 November at Artizan Street Library.

Best wishes

Malcolm Key

City of London Libraries

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