A Change of Scenery

"Rachel, I work in a psychiatrist's office. I see people all day, in and out of their conditions. Who they are at any given time is usually based on whether they're sticking to their meds."
- Douglas Coupland, Player One

In a Strange Room is ostensibly a novel. The book's "three journeys" all centre around one character, moving through time and place. (Like his countryman, J.M. Coeteze, Damon Galgut has chosen to name the protagonist after himself. How much of himself is really in these stories, of course, is impossible for the reader to say.) However, each journey stands easily on its own, and does not reference or require the others to frame it. Each piece meets the arguments in Rebecca Rosenblum's post "What is a short story?" and I'm inclined to treat them as such.

Travel is an interesting way of knowing people. The people you meet while away would react to you differently if you knew them day-to-day. Those you think you know well will act in new ways when on unfamiliar ground. When you travel to someone else's home, you will find that person's environment has a large effect on their behaviour. Galgut examines these three relationship possibilities.

In the first journey, he meets a German man while they are both on vacation in Greece. Their approach on a road, foretells an acquaintance that seems full of possibility. They write to each other when each returns home, and Damon feels the frisson of expectation with every letter. Finally, Reiner comes to South Africa. Anyone who has been in a long-distance longing can guess how this turns out.

Damon meets Jerome while wandering in Zimbabwe. On vacation from Switzerland, Jerome intrigues Damon. What follows is a mad chase; Jerome's itinerary is planned, and Damon must scramble to keep up the pursuit. When Jerome has to return home, he extracts a promise that Damon will come to Switzerland to visit. When he arrives, Jerome is rarely at home, and Damon spends more time with his mother. Upon arrival, Damon is an afterthought to Jerome.

Finally, Damon agrees to take a good friend's girlfriend to Goa. Anna is diagnosed bi-polar, and it's thought that time away will do her good. However, Anna proves a difficult and duplicitous traveling companion. Through their trip, Damon must find out how far he is willing to go to help save someone he barely knows.

The common theme through the journeys, is context. Each time, Damon has to revise his concept of the relationship when the geography changes. "Personality" is infinitely mutable, and when the scene changes, people will change with it, inevitably. Further, changes in the personality of his those he meets and travels with is so changeable it has a serious effect on his own identity. In In a Strange Room the narration changes from third to first person, and back, with no discernible pattern, calling into question even the concept of the Self.

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 wiper 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 weight and permanent, has completely gone. Thing happen once only, and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.

In a Strange Room was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize.