If you’ve ever worked in a corporate office, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Perception is reality.” To Björn, the office worker who narrates Jonas Karlsson’s novel The Room, the reality is simple: there’s a door near the bathroom that leads to a tidy little room with a desk. Inside this room, he feels a profound sense of peace. The problem is that Björn is the only one in the office who can see the room.
Björn is a new employee at “the Authority” at the start of the novel. He describes himself as ambitious and smart, but within a matter of pages, it becomes clear that he’s unreliable. He reprimands a co-worker for allowing the files on his desk to spill onto Björn’s, an obvious overreaction. We begin to realize that the whole office is concerned about Björn’s strange behavior when the manager, Karl, sends an email to the entire staff that says: “We will be putting staffing issues under a microscope.”
What follows Karl’s email is the revelation that Björn sees a room nobody else can, and that, while Björn thinks he is inside the room, he is actually staring at the wall. Karl and the staff confront him about this behavior, but Björn, so convinced of his own reality, insists that everyone else is delusional or conspiring against him.
Karl asks Björn to get professional mental-health counseling. Björn does, but it doesn’t help. Then Björn discovers that being in the room allows him to do advanced-level work, he uses the subsequent boost in productivity as leverage. The tables turn; Björn is now able to force the rest of the office to accept that a room that does not exist, does. The door becomes a metaphor for the ridiculous lows to which office culture can stoop.
As a narrator, Björn comes across as an arrogant know-it-all, but what prevents him from becoming insufferable is his isolation. When he’s at home alone, he paints a sad picture: “I put on a CD of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, but soon swapped it for one of Sting’s albums, only to switch to Dire Straits and then John Cougar Mellencamp. I didn’t really feel like listening to any of them, but liked the idea of associating with the very best.”
Who is he trying to impress? Here Björn is trying to convince himself he’s closer to his idea of an admirable person, but he knows he’s falling short. He hurts, but the pain is buried. So when he says, “Inhibited people don’t see the world the way it really is. They only see what they themselves want to see,” we realize better than he does that he’s speaking about himself.
The Room is more than the story of an office nutcase. It’s a hilarious portrait of corporate culture, which allows strong personalities to force rational people to accept (or at least tolerate) irrational ideas.
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