Reviewed by Chris Mackowski
Like travel, Damon Galgut’s story collection In a Strange Room can be disorienting at times. But each also leads the reader along an inner journey that’s both insightful and, at times, bleak.
The three stories, only loosely connected by the same narrator, recount various life-deepening walkabouts and the interactions he has along the way. On each journey, he serves in a different role relative to his travel companion: follower, lover, and guardian. In each story, “they are committed to a situation of which the outcome is unknown,” Galgut writes. “[T]ravel and love have this much in common.”
Galgut’s narrator, Damon, feels adrift. “His life is unweighted and centreless, so that he feels he could blow away at any time,” Galgut writes. “He still has not made a home for himself.” The walkabouts, he hopes, will help him find himself.
The notion of travel-as-self-discovery isn’t new. Galgut seems to sense this, so Damon’s self-discovery happens not only on the road but also through his interactions relative to the travel companion in each story. Along the way, Galgut plays with nearly every convention of “correct” writing, and this makes what might otherwise be another conventional travel narrative into something far more interesting.
Most notably, the narrator shifts point of view, sometimes within the same sentence, from first person to third person. He sometimes speaks of “I,” but just as frequently he speaks of himself as “him,” too. The effect, wildly disconcerting at first, becomes familiar and creates a simultaneous sense of participation and removed observation. It’s like a dream, where you watch yourself. The stylistic device becomes a crucial way of understanding the invested disconnectedness Galgut establishes between the narrator and the events of the narrator’s life.
“He watches, but what he sees isn’t real to him,” the narrator says. “Too much traveling and placelessness have put him outside everything, so that history happens elsewhere, it has nothing to do with him. He is only passing through.”
Galgut also plays with tense. The stories all take place in the present and are written in present tense, but on three or four occasions the narrator speaks from the future: “Now years later as I write this,” he says, pulling readers out of the moment. It’s Brechtian in its disengagement. Galgut’s manipulation of tense and point of view combine to create a distinctive rhythm, one not apparent at first. Readers must get well into the story before they can begin to feel it. The effect cleverly mimics the very purpose of the walkabouts Galgut writes about: “If you walk and walk for long enough, the rhythm takes over,” he says, and when that happens, discovery and insight finally become possible.
Travel is transformative, Galgut argues. “A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made,” he writes. “The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are.” It’s Frost’s “Road Not Taken” writ large across continent and longer expanses of time.
“Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return,” Galgut says. “Except in memory.”
The memory—the written narrative—provides a second chance for Damon to revisit vitally influential experiences and mull over the things he learned along the way. The roads revisited, though, don’t wind across Africa or India or Europe. They’re internal. Readers who go along on the journey will find much to discover for themselves.