Dealing with workplace conformity in Jonas Karlsson's The Room

Header image for Interrobang article CREDIT: RANDOM/HOGARTH

It’s no surprise that a lot of fiction has been written on the topic of office culture considering the number of people who spend most of their lives working there. Almost everybody can think of a co-worker who makes you wonder how they manage to keep their job, or a micromanaging boss who must have something better to do. Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is a concise, gripping glimpse into office work culture with a twist of magical realism.

The story opens with the mention of a room, and a factual description of the events that transpired around the opening and closing of its door. Over the course of the next few chapters, only a few pages each, we learn that Swedish worker Björn is narrating the story and has just been transferred to a mysterious workplace called the Authority.

We’re introduced to the handful of other workers on the fourth floor, particularly Björn’s desk mate Håkan. Brief, factual descriptions of people and situations give us a trustworthy look into office dynamics, and Björn begins to look like someone who will quickly make a name for himself. The only thing stopping him, it seems, is the room.

The room sits between the elevator and the bathrooms and has a neat and tidy interior. Björn first enters the room by coincidence when looking for photocopy paper, but later ends up spending time in the room for reasons he is unsure of.

The writing is specific and plain, creating descriptions and dialogue that say a lot more through implied action than through spoken word. Björn’s deliberate awkwardness masquerading as confidence is reminiscent of characters in NBC’s The Office or Office Space. Numbering the amount of times Björn enters the room makes entering the room seem like an odd obsession.

Soon the cracks of Björn’s world begin to show and we begin to question his account of things. What is the purpose of this room? Why is everyone so upset about him entering it? Questions are proposed with no real answers. Our trust in Björn as a narrator begins to dissipate as the day-to-day drama and accusations begin to pile up against his version of things. Themes of conformity and social isolation are explored through the conflict surrounding the room.

Björn becomes the office pariah, and his observations of his fellow workers almost make it feel deserved. It’s up in the air whether we should be rooting for Björn or rallying against him, and that in part makes the book such a subjective experience.

“A lot of people, more than you’d imagine, think everything’s fine. They’re happy with things the way they are. 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,” reads a quote from the book.

The descriptions of events combined with an untrustworthy narrator leaves much of the events up for interpretation; this isn’t a book with a clear-cut definition of what did or did not happen. It is, however, an intriguing and welcome fable offering insight as to what really makes the cogs turn in a dysfunctional, but productive, office.