Have you ever worked alongside an oddball? Someone who has a markedly different way of dealing with people socially which makes your need to work alongside them somewhat uncomfortable? Most people have at some point. The pressurised environment of an office seems particularly prone to small personal clashes between people with different social techniques. The most striking example in my own memory is when an online marketing expert was recruited at my office. The directors asked him to spend a few minutes with all the employees so he could get an understanding for what they do. He took this as an opportunity to evaluate everyone’s workload and lecture them about how they should do their job better. Unsurprisingly, this made him few friends. He frequently spoke to people with an arrogant superior air - even when he was unquestionably in the wrong. Yet, he seemed baffled as to why he was socially alienated from everyone in the office. He didn’t last long at my company.
“The Room” is a novel about a person named Bjorn who is very much like this and it’s narrated from his perspective. At one point he states: “They [people] 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.” The people Bjorn works with don’t enjoy how he arrogantly shows them this. He has a very regimental, strict attitude towards his work and work habits. Every fifty-five minutes he allows himself a few minutes break. It’s on one of these breaks he discovers a room near the office toilets. Inside the room is a perfectly ordered and ordinary unused office. Bjorn finds it comforting to spend time in this tranquil space. The only problem is that no one else can see it and all available evidence shows that the room doesn’t actually exist. When he’s inside the room, his co-workers only see him standing in the corridor staring at nothing with a totally detached manner. They remark: “‘It’s like you’re just not there.’” It’s like the room is a mental space Bjorn needs to gather his wits about him, but the narrative surreally plays with the question of whether this room has a tangible existence.
Because of the stark, plain language of the narrative and the preoccupation with Bjorn’s sense of self-consciousness, comparisons could be made between this novel and post-modernist writers like Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco’s only novel “The Hermit” or existentialists like Knut Hamsun or Jean-Paul Sartre or Franz Kafka. Because of the office setting and the upset his small antisocial actions cause, this novel also has the feel of Merlville's "Bartleby, the Scrivner." Bjorn’s character has an anonymous feel similar to many characters created by these writers because we’re given so little background about him other than how he left his previous job because of difficulties he had with co-workers and a brief reference to being punched in grammar school. But this novel has a much lighter, brisk tone and its ideas don’t extend far enough into the cerebral thoughts of these writers to really merit comparison. Joshua Ferris’ office-set novel “Then We Came to the End” is a much more apt reference for “The Room” because it is concerned more with the social manners, career tactics and office politics it explores. Bjorn’s behaviour and some of the things he says to his co-workers is really outrageous. Because the reader is totally entrenched in his point of view it’s made to feel completely rational. But, of course, we can’t help thinking how angered we’d feel if someone said these things in our own offices.
A case could easily be made for Bjorn being diagnosed as a sociopath. Or perhaps he has tendencies similar to certain kinds of autism which make social interaction very difficult. No mental health diagnosis can be made because when Bjorn is directed to get treatment from a psychiatrist the bureaucracy he encounters dismisses him as not worth the time. Sometimes in the narrative Bjorn uses the second person speaking to “you” but the “you” could almost be himself he’s speaking to because Bjorn has a very intense internal dialogue with himself. He also feels a definite remove from other people where he believes he can see things more clear-sightedly than them because of his superior intellect: “I suddenly felt how lonely it is, constantly finding yourself the only person who can see the truth in this gullible world.” His removal from his workmates and strategic plans to ascend in rank sees him bring his office to a point of crisis. The ending is both thrilling and teasingly elusive in meaning.