by Damon Galgut
180 pages, Atlantic Books
Review by Marc Nash
In a Strange Room is my third and final review of a Booker shortlisted contender and the best-written, but ultimately most frustrating, of the three. Originally published in its three constituent parts in the "Paris Review" as individual stories, each has undoubted power, but brought together as an integral work, nagging doubts enter the mind.
The book is subtitled "three journeys", which is exactly what it is. A man, halfway through revealed also to be called Damon like the author and periodically shown to be in some sort of present looking back on these three episodes as an "I" talking about himself in the third person during the rest of the narrative, spends his life travelling. What in my youth would be called "bumming around". The character admits he must just keep travelling, never staying still, never being alone with himself with time to fill. He lacks for much curiosity about his surroundings. Since none of the past history behind this is explored, we can only surmise he is an embodiment of anomie. In this he echoes Camus' "L'Etranger", Ferris' "The Unnamed", Eggers' "You Shall Know Our Velocity" and even McCarthy's "The Road" albeit sans apocalyptic backdrop. But this book transcends none of them.
What we get are three very intense portrayals of relationship. In the first, "The Follower", Damon meets a black-clad German backpacker and they decide to travel through Lesotho together. The German Reiner is the dominant partner, winning small victory after small victory in the decision-making process, providing and therefore controlling the money and gradually sloughing off all the domestic duties on to Damon. And that's pretty much all there is to it until Damon's symbolic act of resistance. I was reminded of the type of status games actors play during improvisation, though unlike there, here was very little variation up and down the power ladder. Damon's character just comes across as weak, Reiner a manipulative scumbag. Hard to root for either of them, hard to have much in the way of sympathy.
In the second section, "The Lover", everything is completely held under in a monumental representation of repression. There was some undercurrent of desire with Reiner, but Damon's crush on Frenchman Jerome barely ever gets off the launchpad. Jerome himself seems willing, but equally feckless about expressing his true wants and feelings. There are some mildly interesting descriptions of the blocks to mobility at border crossings and the like, but the complete stasis of the characters for all their physical locomotion is just wearying. On their travels, Jerome and Damon are alone and together just once and very briefly. When they meet up again after the trip, it is within the bosom of Jerome's family and again all propulsion is paralysed. In isolation, either of these two stories may well work, but together they produce a character where I just don't care about his fate. If he won't inject any life into his own proceedings, I'm unlikely to want to do it for him.
However, the third section, "The Guardian", almost redeems the whole, for this in isolation is a truly startling piece of writing. Here Damon is forced to emerge from his own cocoon of inaction, to rescue a mentally unbalanced travelling companion. He has to commit to giving of himself in the most intense manner possible, as he props up a human being collapsing around him. Here it is possible to feel with him as Galgut details the ravages on a human soul. Finally his character emerges from the cocoon, but in the context of the whole book it is too late to fully regain my trust. Had I read "The Guardian" in the "Paris Review" I would have been blown away by it. This is one third of a brilliant book, two thirds of a very good novel and one third Durkheim's ennui rather than anomie.