In A Strange Room, by Damon Galgut

Purchased at Chapters.ca

I would characterize Damon Galgut as an author who is on the verge of the moment, waiting for the breakthrough that vaults him from the ranks of the “very good” to “he has to be read”. He has certainly had success. The Good Doctor and The Impostor both have substantial prize credentials; I was one of many who were very disappointed when The Impostor was not on the 2008 Booker longlist. So, will In A Strange Room be the book that moves him over the next barrier? I am only halfway through the 2010 Man Booker shortlist, but I think it might be just that. It is by far the best book on the longlist that I have read so far; I find it difficult to imagine what novel might overtake it.

In A Strange Room is a short book, only 180 pages in the version that I read, the first time in one sitting. And I admit that when I turned the final page then, I went right back to the start and read it again — this review is the product of two readings. Galgut’s novel comes in three parts, each of about 60 pages, all featuring the same central character: “Damon”. He is a traveller, a trekker actually, who is at home on the road, not at home:

The truth is that he is not a traveller by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstances. 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. This is a defect in his nature that travel has turned into a condition.

“Always away, away”. It is a phrase worth remembering when considering this book.

Damon, like Galgut, is a South African and in the first section — “The Follower” — we meet him in Greece where he is on one of his travelling expeditions. Based in Mycenae, he is on his way to explore some ruins when he sees another trekker, walking towards him. This person (shades of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers here, if you know that book) is dressed all in black, even his pack is black. They meet, converse briefly, and part. The two were heading in opposite directions when they met on the path but the chance meeting becomes ominous when the stranger (Reiner) shows up at Damon’s hostel that night and has requested a bed in the same room.

Part one of this traveller’s tale is the story of Reiner and Damon. They agree to set a trekking agenda for the future that will see them explore together — not in Greece, but later on in the south of Africa. Reiner works for a bit in the meantime in Canada as a tree-planter (yes, that is a lucrative fill-in job for those who trek) and then shows up. The two agree to a plan to aggressively trek Lesotho, make arrangements and head there by bus — “Reiner sits on the back seat, his rucksack on his knees and his head on his rucksack, earplugs wedged into his ears”. Damon has a different experience after they arrive at a way station:

I wander around and come back, then wander again. A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has waited in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat, and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details. A paper bag blowing in the wind. The mark of a dirty shoe on a tile. The irregular sputter of a fluorescent bulb. From this particular place he will retain the vision of a cracked brick wall growing hotter and hotter in the sun.

Read that excerpt again, because it illustrates one of the very real strengths of this novel. Galgut tells most of it in the third person but every now and then (as in that paragraph) the first person intercedes. Sometimes the first person is there in the present, sometimes he is observing in memory. It is not a jarring technique in any way — the author wants the reader to join him in observing what happens from three points of view — the omniscient narrator, the person in the present and that person looking back on what happened. Part of what is so impressive with this book is the way that Galgut manages those three perspectives so effectively — we see the present from outside, we experience the present as if we are there, we look back on what happened and how it touched us.

Damon and Reiner trek and eventually fall apart. Whatever Damon was seeking in his hiking partner (and yes there are strong homosexual overtones to that) he doesn’t find. And he doesn’t know how to break the search and the split is more than awkward. If trekking represents a search for escape, this route doesn’t work.

In part two, “The Lover”, Damon is hiking in Zimbabwe — not much has changed for him and he still sees wandering as his path out. This time, he runs into and joins a group of First World hikers and Galgut has some fun in portraying that cliche. Damon, on the other hand, is transfixed by a group of three Europeans whose paths always seem to overlap with his own group, whom he is rapidly disinclined to keep following. The travel metaphor here is quite different:

In this state travel isn’t a 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 bored anguish of staying still. He spends a few days in Harare, then goes down to Bulawayo. He does the obligatory things required of visitors, he goes to the Matopos and sees the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, but he can’t produce the necessary awe or ideological disdain, he would rather be somewhere else. If I was with somebody, he thinks, with somebody I loved, then I could love the place and even the grave too, I would be happy to be here.

If Part One represents Damon looking for a fellow traveller, Part Two is about his dependence — the hope that his travelling will produce a contact on whose coattails he can ride to the future. No secret, but this doesn’t work out either.

I am going to give Part Three — “The Guardian” — the short shrift here, even though it may be the strongest part of the book. In the first two parts, Damon was the searcher, looking for partners and helpers. In Part Three, his urge to wander becomes in itself a prison because he is the post on whom his fellow traveller (kind of) leans, perhaps “exploits” is the better verb. Galgut moves from the single fellow traveller, to the group that beckons for a better future, to the traveller who literally represents stones in his pockets.

There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it is a long way from home.

Those two sentences are the summary of this exceptional novel — In A Strange Room is a powerful, powerful book and an amazing achievement. In prose that is both sparse and lyrical, Galgut gives us a character — himself — who is searching and not finding. (If you liked Coetzee’s Summertime last year, buy this book now). The full picture of his central character is never really apparent but given the autobiographical references that is understandable. The three voices that he uses to tell his story create a very rare reading experience, at least for this reader, where one moves from one perspective to the other with much ease. And the result is a deeply understood — and equally deeply troubling — narrative of what might happen if you choose to “travel” to escape your demons.

These three chapters all appeared originally in the Paris Review, so if you read that publication and they sound familiar there is a reason. And for a second, equally enthusiastic opinion of the novel from a somewhat different point of view, check out Just William’s Luck.

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23 Responses to “In A Strange Room, by Damon Galgut”

  1. Kerry Says:

    And I was wondering which, if any, of these longlisters to read. Thank you, Kevin. The reference to Summertime and Coetzee, would be enough, but your exploration of the novel’s themes makes it even more appealing. I would ask if I should start somewhere else, but I would just be kidding you and myself. I am reading this one, hopefully before the prize is announced.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I don’t think you will be disappointed. Of the seven that I have read, this novel is something special — many of the others were just fine (and the Mitchell probably has much appeal to those who love historical fiction) but for me In A Strange Room illustrates what a truly good novel is about.

  3. kimbofo Says:

    This was the book that least appealed to me on the longlist, but having now read your review I’m itching to read it. I have done my fair share of travelling in the past so it will probably resonate, but what most appeals to me is what you say about him telling things from three points of view; not an easy technique but if done successfully very powerful.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: If you travelled in your twenties and made those kinds of “road” friendships (some good, some not so good) that are part of the experience, I think you will find that the novel strikes a responsive chord. Galgut does not use the two first person voices a lot (the quoted para is a good example of how it usually appears) but when he does it is always for a reason. After the first time or two, I found as a reader that it was very easy to follow him into that other voice — in many ways the ones where he is looking back in memory are the most effective, but it is impossible to quote an example without spoiling the incident be relating everything that leads to the memory.

  5. Lisa Hill Says:

    I haven’t read this one yet but I did read The Good Doctor and have reviewed The Impostor on my blog. (http://tinyurl.com/27j7joc) I think Galgut is an impressive writer who writes perceptively about South African issues with an universal perspective.

  6. William Rycroft Says:

    Thanks for the mention Kevin. It’s a while since I read this but when the longlist was announced I began to think about the book again and it seemed to have grown in my already high estimation. You’ve actually pointed out many of the reasons why and a bit more reflection has helped me realise just how cleverly Galgut has put together these three seemingly separate tales. They all work individually but it is only together that the full impact of the novel can be felt.

    As to whether anything else on the longlist can top it; I’ve now read five titles and this remains at the top along with To McCarthy’s C. I can’t wait for you to review that one. My attempt went up today: http://justwilliamsluck.blogspot.com/2010/08/everything-returns.html

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: I agree that Galgut uses his South African background and experience to provide a special focus to issues that are much more universal. I also very much appreciate his use of language — there is a tautness to his prose that is very effective.
    Will: I have found it interesting that readers who are less keen on this book seem to have looked more at the individual stories (and they do stand alone if you want) and less at the “journey” that is involved in looking at them as parts of a whole. I guess if the central character doesn’t establish a presence in your mind early on, that might be a problem. As for C, I am looking forward to it — at the moment it is somewhere between the UK and here.

  8. leroyhunter Says:

    I’ve gone from being interested to really keen on this one Kevin. It looks head-and-shoulders above the rest of the dull longlist. It’s proving hard to track down though (at least in paperback) so I wonder has there been an unexpected run on it due to the recent coverage?

    Really enjoyed the review, and your mention of Summertime is the clincher for me.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I read the Canadian edition (trade paperback) which was just released last week — not sure what the status of the book is in the rest of the world. It wasn’t available in hardback here. I do think there are structural comparisons with Summertime and while both authors cast themselves as the central character, they do tend to view him from different perspectives.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Kevin,

    Would you suggest this as the place to start with Galgut, or one of his earlier works?

    Thanks.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I think you could start with either this or The Imposter — unless, of course, you wanted to approach him chronologically. While all of his work is introspective, this one is perhaps even more character-driven. I find them all rewarding.

  12. Shelley Says:

    As someone who writes long but is envious of short, I found this post engaging! Thanks, Kevin.

  13. Tom C Says:

    Another fine review Kevin – this certainly sounds intriguing. I am not hugely travelled but even still this resonates – “A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression”. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom C: Given your ventures into France, I think you would find the second part of this one quite interesting.

  15. paddyjoe Says:

    Great review of a great book, Kevin. Of the 8 longlisted books I’ve read so far this tops my list, and I feel is unlikey to be beaten. As for winning this year’s Booker, well, I’ve probably just jinxed it. I’ve been down to the local bookies to put £20 to win at odds of 14/1.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    paddyjoe: Actually, we have double jinxed it because I bet it too (at 12/1 so your bookie is friendlier than mine).

  17. In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut | Paperback Reader Says:

    [...] book has garnered much appreciation in less-pedestrian quarters and I think it may very well be shortlisted for the Booker but I did not care for it very [...]

  18. The Mookse and the Gripes » Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room Says:

    [...] 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 [...]

  19. Pam Says:

    Thanks for such an excellent review. I’ve been getting increasingly upset with all the reviews I’m seeing online that clearly just don’t ‘get it’ so it’s fantastic to read such a apt review.

  20. leroyhunter Says:

    Well, this is simply top-drawer. The final section is truly gripping.

    A small detail, but the way he handles dialogue (no quotation marks, uninflected by punctuation) is a device you often see attempted but rarely achieved as effectively as in this book – the tone, manner etc of his speakers seems to come to you directly off the page.

    The cumulative effect of the 3 narratives and the beautiful style he deploys makes this powerful stuff, as you’ve said Kevin.

    Now: Booker judges, you’ve earned your corn by selecting this, regardless of whatever other dross has gotten through…so Galgut champions, fight for the book and give us a great winner! (and don’t reward that charlatan McCarthy!)

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: A great comment, until you got to that bracketed phrase at the end. Stay tuned for a vehement correcting comment from Lee Marks, if he drops back in. By way of stating my bias, I rank Galgut ahead of McCarthy but understand why others reverse it. Now both Leroy and I should find foxholes to get out of way of the incoming Scuds.

    Your comment also offers me the opportunity to say again that people need to experience this book as a novel, not as three short stories that have been previously published. I think the Victorian-era serial publication actually has some relevance here — certainly, no one ever accused Dickens of publishing a collection of short stories instead of a novel, but his books did appear as serials. One of the things that practice does is ask readers to spend some time contemplating what they have read before going on (no choice in serial terms, of course). I think that is tactic that would be well applied to Galgut’s novel — his character’s adventure and development moves on, but that process rewards contemplation.

    Definitely my choice and I will now join you in awaiting Lee’s critical riposte. Jacobson supporters will have to await the “compromise” portion of the debate before weighing in.

  22. leroyhunter Says:

    I was trailing my coat with that McCarthy crack, I admit. I haven’t read C so am not basing my view on the book but I’ve read plenty of his pronouncements in interviews (or indeed quoted in reviews) and I find myself allergic. He’s switched me off his own book.

    It’s an interesting comment about what the structure of In A Strange Room asks of readers. A point of reference that occurred to me was David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, which of course *is* a short story collection but which was marketed in UK / Ireland as a novel, and suffered for that I think. There are similarities: overlap of writer & protagonist (but to what extent precisely is never made clear); repeated exploration of the same theme (or event); deceptive simplicity of style.

    Where the Vann book lacks though is in balance: there’s one long section that overwhelms the other, shorter pieces; whereas Galgut’s book strikes me as perfectly poised in that regard as well as in so many others.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I am still in my foxhole vis-a-vis C (which I quite liked) but will pop up for this comment before Lee opens fire.

    I agree with your point about structure — and can’t help but remember that a Booker jury unilaterally decided a linked collection of Alice Munro stories was a novel. I have the Vann in the house somewhere but haven’t read it, partly because of the structural issue that you raise and which I have read about, but mainly because the father of a good friend died in Alaska in what well might have been a suicide and I have desire to contemplate that.

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