Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room

When the Booker longlist was announced last month, I quickly raced online to see what books were available in the United States.  A handful were, a few more were almost to be published.  One was available only on from the Kindle store as an ebook: Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room (2010).  I’ve tried the Sony Reader and the Kindle before, and I didn’t like either one.  No temptation whatsoever (though I’m sure they’re getting better).  I have an iPhone, though, with the Kindle app.  But the iPhone’s screen is pretty small, and I wondered if I would purchase it only to find it unreadable.  But the book was out of stock on The Book Depository when I finally made up my mind that I needed to read it (thanks, in large part, to KevinfromCanada’s review).  I had built myself up to buying the book, though, so I went to Amazon and downloaded it to my iPhone.  I though I would write some of my thoughts on the ereading experience, but then I realized that they would be skewed.  I loved this book.  I was completely entranced.  I might hate reading books on the iPhone, but I wouldn’t know yet because this book is so good I would have enjoyed reading it while someone kicked me in the shin.

In a Strange Room is divided into three parts: “The Follower,” “The Lover,” and “The Guardian.”  Each part was published independently in The Paris Review.  In fact, I almost bought the Summer 2009 issue because it had “The Guardian” in it.  I don’t remember why I didn’t.  I’m glad I didn’t though, because though the parts are independent, the power of In a Strange Room is in the combination of the three.  The book is about relationships and memory, most of it comes in the form of a travel tale, and Galgut’s prose is astonishing in its power.

On the Man Booker website there is a brief interview with Galgut where he says this book is about power, love, and guardianship, and how our relationships are defined by one or more of these elements.  “The Follower” is the story about power.  It begins with a man walking down a road.  “He is intensely happy, which is possible for him when he is walking and alone.”  He soon sees a man dressed all in black coming the other direction.  The chat briefly, they are both going different ways, and they part.  Suddenly we are thrown for a bit of a loop: “Het gets to the ruins in the middle of the afternoon.  I can’t even remember now what they are . . .”  Note that shift from third person to first person.  The book will continue to shift perspectives, to fabulous effect as we learn that the narrator is “he,” that at times he is looking back on his past as an objective observer while at other times he is there reliving the past.  Memory, and how it changes perspectives, has a role in this book on relationships.

He sits on the edge of a raised stone floor and stares out unseeingly into the hills around him and now he is thinking of things that happened in the past.  Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was.  But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching.

That night when he arrives at the youth hostel, he is surprised to find the man in black in his room.  The man’s name is Reiner, and Reiner has decided delay his journey, which makes Damon (the narrator’s name, like the author’s, is Damon) uneasy, though also excited.  In this companionship Damon has some desires.  The homoerotic tension is palpable.  The tension builds because Reiner is travelling to avoid a girl.  He never talks about the potential for a sexual relationship with Damon, but nor does he respond in a way that would allow one to take place. 

A few years later Reiner writes to say he’s coming to South Africa, where Damon lives.  He wants to go for a journey and would like Damon come along.  Damon gladly accepts, not necessarily because he hopes something might develop between him and Reiner but because he cannot stay in one place:

The truth is that he is not a traveller by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstance.  He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety, which makes everything heightened and vivid.  Life becomes a series of tiny threatening details, he feels no connection with anything around him, he’s constantly afraid of dying.  As a result he is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forward to the next place, and yet he is also never going towards something, but always away, away.

If Damon, besides moving away, away, is also wishing for some goal, he doesn’t get there.  Things end badly after weeks in which Damon follows Reiner on all-night hikes and then cleans up camp while Reiner preens himself in the morning.  Besides the tension in the air brought on by Damon’s ambiguous feelings toward Reiner, there is an element of competition and resentment, all combining to form a relationship that has “the shape of a dark passion to it.”

It’s a great story, and it leads nicely into “The Lover.”  Not as intense as “The Follower” (or “The Guardian,” for that matter), “The Lover” is more tender.  At its beginning, Damon feels the desire to leave again:

Something in him has changed, he can’t seem to connect properly with the world.  He feels this is not a failure of tte world but a massive failing in himself, he would like to change it but doesn’t know how.  In his clearest moments he thinks that he has lost the ability to love, people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing that he is.  Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.

In this state travel isn’t celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself.  He moves around from one place to another, not driven by curiosity but by the bored anguish of staying still.

So he leaves South Africa again to travel up to Malawi.  Another journey, and this time he finds a group of travellers who would like his company, and in this group he might have found someone who reciprocates his attraction, a young man named Jerome.  We see as their relationships builds in potential, small moments in time, and we see it recede and become formal again, perhaps with no possibilities:

They have never been more distant, or polite.  In the morning his actual departure will be an echo of this one.  He has already left, or perhaps he never arrived.

In the third story, “The Guardian,” Damon is travelling in India with Anna, a friend who is suffering from serious depression.  He’s offered to watch after her, and there is hope that some travel will do her good.  Sadly, his old friend is hardly there anymore but has been replaced by a “thing that’s taken up station inside her, driving along with so much fury and power.”  We move fast as time collapses and Damon works all hours to make sure Anna doesn’t kill herself, which makes him hate her, though he still feels responsible for her.

The themes of travel, memory, and companionship (in all of its forms) come together nicely:

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made.  You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there.  The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are.  In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed.  Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again.  The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone.  Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return.  Except in memory.

This is certainly one of my favorite books of the year, and I’ve had a pretty good reading year.

20 thoughts on “Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room

  1. Tricia says:

    Great review! I’m looking forward to reading this one.

  2. brent says:

    As always, great review, Trevor. It’s been moved toward the top of my ever-growing to-read list. (I’ve lately been hesitant to automatically add Booker-listed books to my list as I have in the past.)

    I am, however, eager to read your review on the e-reading experience if you ever do write one. My parents gave me a kindle for my birthday last month, knowing how I love to read. So far, so good. (Although nothing beats the feel and smell of the real thing.)

  3. Lee Monks says:

    I’ve already given this book the dead-cert kiss of death by suggesting that it’s a shoo-in for the shortlist, so allow me to retract that and instead say: it has absolutely no chance of getting on there, of course. Galgut is tremendous, though, and I certainly hope it does.

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your comments, Tricia, brent, and Lee. I’m afraid I was a bit absent on here this past weekend and didn’t respond as I would have liked to :).

    Tricia, do return and let us know how you like the book. You too, brent. And it shouldn’t take too long as you can have it on your kindle in a few seconds and read it in a few hours. I agree with you that nothing quite beats the feel and smell of the real book in hand. I spent this weekend reading some of the LOA’s William Maxwell volumes (much more on this later), and I couldn’t imagine the experience being even close to the same if I’d done it on any e-reader.

    Lee, better you keep your mouth shut, I’d say! The fates can sense what you really mean there! I’m not sure it is a shoo-in for the shortlist, though if it were up to me it would win the prize.

  5. Isabel says:

    I need to find this novel.

    Did you do most of your reading on your commute to work or at night? I Pod reading, that’s a new one for me.

  6. For some reason Galgut had never appealed to me. Not even with Kevin’s excellent review of this book. I saw you mention you’d read it on the iPhone though and downloaded a sample to see how it worked.

    My god but he can write. I mean, I should have known. Both you and Kevin had said so and I’d read what Kevin had written about him. Still, sometimes something just doesn’t appeal and one can’t make it do so.

    So, you’ve now sold me on Galgut. I’ll be downloading it in full and I’ll let you know how I find it.

    On a technological note, I had my Kindle 2 arrive at the weekend. I’m reading David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten on it and presently it’s proving a very easy reading experience. I understand it’s improved over the first generation, which I only saw briefly but didn’t take to. It won’t replace Pushkin in my heart, but I already have an NYRB (Hard Rain Falling) downloaded onto it. I’ll let you know how it works out. It’s that I’ll be reading the Galgut on.

  7. Trevor says:

    Isabel, I do almost all of my reading on my commut to and from work. At night I might read another twenty pages or so, but my daily commute runs anywhere from 2 to 2 1/2 hours, giving me plenty of time to get through the books. Of course, depending on the book, I have been known to read quite a bit at night too. I think I read this one in a day and a half’s commute, or roughly one part per train ride.

    Max, I need to go back and read the Galguts I’ve missed, as this was my first. Kind of like you, I downloaded it more wondering if it would work to read on the iPhone, and then I was sucked in. I look forward to your Kindle 2 reports. I imagine some day I’ll switch over to an e-reader for all those books I want to read but have no real desire to keep on my shelf.

  8. brent says:

    Trevor, seems I misspoke (or mistyped, or mis-somethinged). I’ve got a nook, not a kindle, and I’m finding it quite comfortable for my daily commute (45 minutes each way, give or take). So, the Galgut e-book isn’t available for the nook. So, while I wait, I’ll be happily working my way through The Imperfectionists e-book on my commute (thanks also to your review) and Franzen’s Freedom (hardback, bought on my way into Penn Station today) at home. And I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the Galgut’s e-book.

  9. Trevor says:

    The nook can’t do kindle books? I was under the impression that the kindle books were available for most devices. The Apple iBookstore is very limited, but I find that I don’t mind because I can still read Kindle books on my Apple devices. I’m not sure how I’d like the nook, then.

    Incidentally, I think the Franzen is waiting for me at home tonight. But . . . I just got a new LOA book too, and then there’s the backlog, and I’m just not sure I can approach Franzen’s book with any kind of healthy mentality given all the hype and the backlash. Let me know how you like it if you get to it first!

  10. brent says:

    Not looking to prejudice you against the nook, but I couldn’t find the Galgut ebook on borders or b&n, and at amazon it only listed various kindle models as the only “compatible” devices. Could be a marketing ploy, who knows….

  11. Trevor says:

    I hope it comes your way, brent. I wouldn’t think Borders or B&N have the funds to allocate to extensive e-book catalogs (then again, I wouldn’t think they’d have the funds to allocate to the intellectual property of an e-reader), so it’s too bad if they don’t work something out to make Kindle books work for their devices. I’m anxious to hear how this develops for you!

  12. Lee Monks says:

    On the Franzen, Trevor – and I’m guessing you may have listened to the Tannenhaus NY Times podcast stuff on Freedom – I can’t wait to see what you think of it. I can’t get hold of it as of yet but, Jennifer Weiner aside, the book has had the kind of advance word I’m not sure I can remember the equal of. And Franzen is, unfathomably (well played Dave Haslam), doing a ‘Q and A’ in Manchester in October that I eagerly await.

  13. Trevor says:

    Tannenhuas, Kakutani, the Guardian: it was all interesting and looks to have been quite over the top considering more tempered reviews.

    I’m thinking my tastes will run more along the lines of Ron Charles (see his video review), who says the book is well done but “there are problems!” I liked both excerpt in The New Yorker, though, so I’ll get to it sooner than later.

  14. Trevor says:

    In another post I responded to the complaints floating around that this is not really a novel at all, and, therefore, shouldn’t be eligible for the Booker. I’ve posted here again to be sure those looking for my views on this book can find them in its post:

    Regarding Galgut, I certainly have no problems with its designation as a novel. As far as I know, there are two claims against it: (1) it is nonfiction and (2) it is a trio of short stories.

    For (1), I don’t think In a Strange Room is straight nonfiction. To me, it’s not even that hybrid popularized by works like In Cold Blood. Galgut may be looking back on events that really happened to him, but, as he himself might say, his memories themselves are fictional. How we puts these memories together, the perspective from which he chooses to view them, the motives he places upon himself and the other characters as he reflects — he has a lot of latitude to stray from facts.

    Incidentally, I have no problems with claims that this is nonfiction, but I think that is limiting. Furthermore, to my knowledge, Galgut has never specified how much of this is really an account of his own past. Probably it is based on some experiences, but he hasn’t said where his play has entered the past to create something different, something perhaps more true.

    On (2), I certainly think these stories are linked sufficiently that the book should be read as a whole. Galgut has a central character going through three separate but related experiences with three separate but related individuals. The themes from one carry into the others. One could read these individually or in any order, just like one can read an exerpt from a novel, but the power is in their presentation as a whole. Only reading these as a whole can we see how Galgut is exploring three separate modes of emotional connection, and how those modes converge or diverge.

    I’ll add an additional aside here: I wish the Booker were open to collections of short stories (though I’m certainly not conceding that In a Strange Room is a compilation of three independent short stories, however they were produced and originally published). If people complain that Galgut got in while Munro got out, that isn’t, to me, a complaint that should be directed at Galgut or even these judges (incidentally, Munro did get in for a book of related short stories: The Beggar Maid), but at the parameters in which the Booker has chosen to lock itself.

  15. I love your review. I just would have to wait for the book. e-books are not the thing for me.

    I have been wondering why certain authors keep their names in novels. I read one Coetzee novels ‘In the Heart of the Country’ and it was made up of two novelettes and there were about three Coetzees in them. I think I have also seen Brink do that.

    All the same this is a nice review. You make me want to read it now… but it would take sometime before they become available in Ghana.

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