On the weirdness of our fellow humans…

People are so weird.  They just are.  That’s my conclusion after teaching for over thirty years and traveling to a variety of countries, and I’m sticking to it. And the book I just finished, The Room, by Swedish author Jonas Karlsson (Random House, 2015), captures that weirdness fabulously.

This is an odd little book.  Promotional materials bill it as a sort of literary version of “The Office”, but I found it to be much more than that.  Yes, it is set in a nondescript government office.  Yes, there are the usual array of co-workers, with their predictable quibbles and foibles.  Yet the story goes far beyond that.  Bjorn, the protagonist, is not particularly sympathetic.  In fact, he’s downright annoying.  He’s arrogant, patronizing, and socially inept, which creates tension in the office.  And when he discovers an idyllic (for him) room that no one else purports to see or know of, this conflict intensifies.  The work he is able to accomplish there is of such high quality it eventually sets up even more discord.  Even if I wanted to spoil the ending, I couldn’t, for the simple fact that a day after finishing the book, I really don’t quite grasp what finally happens.

Which is what makes this such a fun read.  Also billed as “Kafkaesque”, there is definitely a surreal feel to the novel.  This is a short, terse, tightly wound volume that left me thinking about it many more hours than I actually spent reading it.  What I found myself reflecting back on again and again is the number of times in my working life I was thinking uncharitable things about my colleagues -and yes, my students- that sound truly awful when they’re actually put in print.  And here’s the thing:  I know my colleagues and students were in all likelihood thinking the same things about me.  The genius of the book lies, I think, in this universality.

The central premise of the novel, that Bjorn is able to do his best work in a separate room, illuminates another facet of the modern working world.  I know of several people who have felt threatened to the point of leaving their jobs by the currently popular “open office” concept.  If you are an introvert, the corporate emphasis on extroversion and teamwork can be taxing, and without any “space” in which to escape, these people find themselves being less productive and highly stressed.  In some way, then, I think the room Bjorn retreats to serves as a metaphor for the need many people have for private space and respect for their individual skills and needs.

I suspect that each reader of The Room will come away with a unique interpretation.  That the book was originally written in Swedish underlines that, despite cultural differences like caviar for breakfast or shoe covers in the office, we are all human, with unique needs and perspectives.  Which makes us all, in one way or another, weird.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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