“It happens like this.”
So begins Damon Galgut’s Booker-shortlisted novel In a Strange Room. It’s very matter-of-fact, isn’t it, and indeed this sets a tone for the rest of the book—events occur, the protagonist travels around, but there is little time wasted on analysis or explanation for his travels, or the motivation, or the reasoning. He is driven by something inside to wander from place to place, to set forth, and in three separate sections of this very muted, fascinating, evocative novel, the protagonist tries to play a certain role, always coming up short. Those sections are titled “The Follower,” “The Lover,” and “The Guardian.”
The protagonist, meanwhile, is named Damon, and though the book vacillates between 1st and 3rd-person narration, the narrator and character are always one and the same. We know this because of how seamlessly (really, it isn’t disruptive) the voice alters between “he” and “I.” At times, the narrator is recalling his past as though through a lens, hence the appropriate use of “he” doing a certain action, etc., but other moments are simply more vivid for him and he is placing himself back at the scene as he describes it (everything is in the present tense) and so he uses “I.”
Galgut, a South African, writes in stark, clean sentences that are reminiscent of another great South African minimalist, J.M. Coetzee (I loved Disgrace). There’s a lot of white space on the pages. Very little dialogue, and when there is, it’s told without quotation marks, often all in one paragraph, and sometimes in run-on sentences. In this way, it’s written a bit like Blindness by Saramago.
The biggest effect of the novel is that it frequently gives you the feeling—one that many of the reviews have mentioned—that you’ve been here before, or at least, that you’ve shared the exact same sensations Damon (the character) expresses in certain moments (usually they are variations on one feeling, I’ll admit: lack of place/vague loneliness/frustration that his interpersonal relationships can’t just be easier). One of the two Times reviews notes the “uncanny relevance that the novel ultimately seems to have for your own life” and twice compares it, correctly I’d say, to the feel of an Antonioni film. (See The Passenger.)
It is this self-recognition, the nostalgia evoked by Damon’s musings, that fuels the book and makes it such a quick, compelling read. But what also enhances this sort of “I’ve been here before” quality is the timelessness. The book has zero references to any sort of modern indicators like social media or television, nothing at all until the final section, when the word “e-mail” appears twice: “he has some important e-mails to write” and, “when I come back to the room after doing e-mail.” (Note how even then, when e-mail does appear, the narrator uses that stilted language, “doing e-mail” no one would really phrase it that way, though it is possible, of course, that it’s not intentional and it is how Galgut would really word it.) Because there are no mentions of the Internet, of McDonald’s, say, or of video games or Twitter or corporate America or any of the bullshit that adds white noise to our lives, the story is completely timeless and could easily have been written fifty years ago (without those two mentions of e-mail).
If anything, there’s only one criticism I can make of the novel, which is that all too often Damon makes observations that are really kind of obvious and facile, a bit platitudinous. Ron Charles, WaPo book critic, didn’t love the book for precisely that reason, among others. But I read it on Kindle, and what’s interesting is that, through the “popular highlights” function, you can see which passages were most underlined (by 16 other people or so) and it was indeed often these types of “wisdom pearls” that were most highlighted, so they obviously appeal to some. Reflections like: “On the other side of exhaustion there is a state of weakness so acute that it ceases to matter where you are or what you are doing,” or, “In the end you are always more tormented by what you didn’t do than what you did, actions already performed can always be rationalized in time, the neglected deed might have changed the world.”
As for me, I don’t love these moments, but I also admit that many of them are effective for the very reason that they are universal. Yes, we’ve all (often while traveling) had that feeling of total, deep exhaustion. And yes, I’ve felt endlessly frustrated by actions I didn’t take. Sure, these may be easy observations to make, but that shouldn’t negate the fact that they indeed appeal to our sense of shared experience. Another example of such a moment comes in the second section when Damon has just said goodbye to the people he was traveling with, and returns alone to the hotel in which they were staying: “He goes into his room and stares around, then goes out along the balcony to their room. It’s all as it was, the three beds, the fan turning listlessly overhead. He sits down on the edge of a chair. There are bits of paper crumpled on the floor, envelopes, notes, pages from a book, which they dropped while cleaning out their bags, and these solitary white scraps, drifting in the wind from the fan, are sadder to him than anything else that’s happened.” I practically had goosebumps at this point; I have had that same experience (and I know it’s not unique; that’s the point) of surveying a room after cleaning my stuff out of it, and packing up to go. You look around and think, ‘Wow, we just spent a week (or whatever) here, living in this room, doing things and having experiences, and now it’s just empty and I leave, and someone else will be here tonight.’
Damon, meanwhile, is a bit of an enigma. It’s quite obvious he’s gay, though it’s never overtly made clear (and in fact, that particular word never once appears in the book). In the first section, “The Follower,” he meets a stranger, a German man named Reiner, and without saying much, they decide to go on a hiking trip together in Lesotho for like two weeks. It’s quite strange, and their first night in a tent is a homoerotic, passive-aggressive psychological contest that reminded me of the Moby-Dick scene with Ishmael and Queequeg at the inn, sharing a bed. Nothing happens between Reiner and Damon, though Damon badly wants it to; he’s a coward. Their friendship, or relationship, or whatever it is or was going to be, fails because Damon cannot just be a follower (though for quite a while he’s good at it) and ultimately starts disagreeing with Reiner’s decisions and leadership. They split, goodbye, sad, oh well. We move on.
In the second section, “The Lover,” the melancholy gets worse. In a fit of lonely desperation, Damon follows three other people to Zimbabwe, pretty much exclusively because he pines for a Swiss man among them. They trip around for a while, nothing happens between him and the man because he’s shy and there’s a language gap, and then Damon goes home, only to go all the way to Switzerland to visit the guy later. Again nothing happens, it’s all build-up with no payoff, and then at the end of the section, he learns the man has died abruptly. Another sad, lonely ending for Damon, and hence he never becomes “the lover.”
In the third and final section, which is the most upsetting, deeply felt, emotional, and difficult to read (in many ways the best-written, but really the best read is the opening section, which hooks you and is a bit lighter in tone), Damon, as “The Guardian,” goes to India with his suicidal wreck of a friend. [Spoiler alert] There are a few exchanges in this section that make me question whether Damon is meant to be gay or not (you could of course argue it doesn’t matter, but nonetheless the vagueness of his sexual identity is one of the book’s compelling mysteries). For example, as they sit in their room, his friend (a woman) suddenly says to him: “It would be so nice if we could make love.” The reaction: “He looks at her in astonishment. She quickly adds, I know it’s impossible, but I was just thinking.” He responds: “Your girlfriend is my best friend. And I don’t think about you in that way.” So, her use of the phrase “impossible” would suggest that it’s because he’s gay, right (unless he has a Jake Barnes problem, which isn’t the case), but then his answer about his closeness to her girlfriend (she’s a lesbian), is that meant to suggest that the impossibility isn’t about him being gay, but just due to their interpersonal conflict? It’s unclear why Galgut chooses to make it so foggy, but it provides intrigue. It could be argued this is all silly since it’s not crucial to the book to know whether he’s gay, but then again, the entire first two sections revolve around his attraction and pursuit of sexual dalliances with men, so the question has to be asked. Again, I think the answer is assumed and inherent, but this exchange surprised me and confused the possibilities.
Inevitably, he fails (well, it’s debatable) as a “guardian” when his friend tries to kill herself and very nearly succeeds. He spends weeks with her in the hospital nursing her back to health, only to help her onto a plane back to South Africa to find years later that she goes ahead and kills herself. It’s grim indeed, but inevitable, and more crushing is the ongoing loneliness of Damon, and the lack of any sort of final comfort or resolution for him.
The best way I can explain why this book is such an achievement and so readable is through a passage from the second section, in which he’s with the other group but not fitting in: “In every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know.” This is almost one of those moments where a sentence describes the entire book: In a Strange Room is just about the character Damon (unclear if he is a stand-in for Damon Galgut, by the way, and safest never to assume that). You only get this one character’s view. Galgut could have given a perspective from one of the other characters, sure, and it might have been completely different, or perhaps similar, but we don’t know. We’re experiencing it all through one man. But, that being said, that man’s experiences are at many times universal, and therein lies the genius way Galgut makes this a broadly-applied story. It’s a story worth reading.