In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut is a novel in three parts. Or rather, a book in three parts. The novel part is debatable. Why? Because each of the three sections stood alone when they were originally published in the Atlantic. And more importantly, because the main character is named Damon and the author is named Damon as well. In A Strange Room is largely about Damon’s travel experiences. In this sense it is almost more of a travel memoir than a novel, but all memory is fiction, as Galgut says. Are you wondering if I mean Damon the author or Damon the character? Me too.
All of Damon’s experiences in the book are gripping and engaging, but what really pulled me in was the language itself. Beautiful sentences drip down the page from one to the next. They flow like memories, jumping between third and first person as Damon separates the Damon in the book who lived the experiences from the Damon who is remembering and writing about those experiences. Galgut writes, “He gets to the ruins in the middle of the afternoon. I can’t even remember now what they are.” He records his memories in a way that doesn’t make sense logically, but flows through the mind in a much more perfect, soothing way, like water through a river, its currents carving around each rock.
Damon floats between borders, between rooms. With all of his possessions in storage, he feels himself slipping from place to place, always moving, unable to stay in one place for more than a few days. He travels for months at a time, and along the way he meets people who either accompany him on this endless journey, or who root him to an emotion or a place. The book is divided into three parts, each one focusing on one of these three main people who have affected him in some profound way.
The Follower begins with Damon encountering a mysterious figure clad in black. At first the vague and symbolic nature of the traveler met on the road has the feel of a fable or folktale. “The figure is a man about his own age, dressed entirely in black. Black pants and shirt, black boots. Even his rucksack is black.” Damon comes to learn that the man is a German named Reiner, a stranger who later that day mysteriously appears in Damon’s hotel room. But there his mystical quality ends, or rather transforms into something more of this world. Reiner is a quiet man, aloof, and sees himself as being above menial tasks and chores of daily life. When he visits Damon at his home in South Africa, he becomes annoyed at accompanying Damon in the errands he must run. Daily life, and life itself at times is beneath Reiner. The German describes himself only as a philosopher, though the only work he does is to cut trees in Canada, using the money earned to pay for himself and Damon over the course of their travels. This leads him to determine what he and Damon buy and carry and where they go. It is this power of choice that gives Reiner the power in the relationship, ultimately transforming Damon into a follower.
Damon travels with a group of people he meets in Africa, but he focuses on one person, a young Swede named Jerome. He observes Jerome with interest and anticipates quiet moments alone with him. Damon barely interacts with his love interest as he can’t speak Swedish and Jerome can only speak very basic English. The love, if it can be called that, is never consummated in any way, even when Damon goes to visit Jerome in Sweden and stays with his family. This section was interesting because I as a reader expected it to be about a romantic trip shared by lovers, and kept anticipating a deep romantic connection to blossom. At the beginning of the section Damon muses, ”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.” But this section is not about Damon attaining love. In fact, most of this section is about the elusive quality of love and the beloved, or the potential beloved. But nevertheless it is about how love changes a person.
In the final section, Damon travels with his old friend to India. She is suffering from an undisclosed mental disorder of some sort but her condition is never named. As her relationship with her partner back home is deteriorating due to her illness, she agrees to go on the trip with Damon to take time for herself and to take care of herself by relaxing on the beaches and taking her numerous pills. She is mentally unstable and self-destructive, constantly threatening to either not take her medication at all or to take all of it at once. Yet through her self-destructive tendencies, Damon stays by her side like a dutiful guardian, urging her to take her pills, and to take care of herself. Even when she struggles against him and herself, Damon stays by her side, for once rooted to a specific location.
Each of these three pieces focuses on one individual character that Damon meets in his travels. They are about him to the extent that he tries to piece himself and his memories together, referring to himself in the third person as “him.” But largely they are about the range of personality which changes based on personal relationships. With a commanding stranger he follows, with a love interest he longs for love in all aspects of his life, with someone to take care of he makes protection a priority as if there was no other option. As if he never had or would follow or love.
Will Fawley is the assistant fiction editor at Phoebe.