Amerika: The Missing Person
A couple years ago, some trickster posted the first page of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to a Yahoo group looking for advice about “his” new novel. Not surprisingly, the um, yahoos, didn’t recognize the source text and populated the message board with all sorts of terrible advice about the lack of action and the fact that he “knows what to do—just dump it and start over!”
Obviously, this provided a shitton of laughs for the literati, for those who respect DFW’s writing and know that these same yahoos probably cream themselves regularly over Twilight books and Fifty Shades.
Putting aside the snarky cultural divide between those who read “literature” and those who read “fiction,” there is an interesting corollary to this experiment: What happens when we dissociate a text from its author’s reputation?
In the case of Infinite Jest, I think the narrative strategies stand by themselves—that text simply reeks of freshness and risk-taking and competence and something new. (At least at this moment in time.) But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t cases when a reputation taints a book and makes it more than it is. Just look at the critical reaction to J-Franz’s Freedom. Take the Franzen mystique/name off the cover, give it to people with no idea, and the flaws in that book become screamingly apparent.
Anyway, my point in bringing this up: How does one read Kafka after everything in the world has become “Kafkaesque”?
When Karl appeared before them and greeted them, they put away the ledgers quickly and picked up some other large books, which they opened. One of them, evidently only a clerk, said: “I should like to see your identity papers.” “Unfortunately, I don’t have them with me,” said Karl. [. . .] “You’re an engineer?” asked the other man, who seemed to be the chief office manager. “Not yet,” Karl said quickly, “but—” “That’s quite enough, [. . .] then you don’t belong here. I would ask that you heed the signs.” [. . .] “Take this gentleman to the office for people with technical skills.” [. . .] In the office into which Karl was now taken, the procedure was, as Karl had foreseen, similar to that in the first office. However, on hearing that he had attended middle school, they sent him to the office for former middle school students. But once in that office, when Karl said that he had attended a European middle school, they declared that they were not responsible for such cases and requested that he be taken to the office for former European middle school students.
This is funny . . . in a Kafkaesque way. (Sidenote: Reminds me of The Squid and the Whale, when the kid is trying to impress a girl by claiming to love “The Metamorphosis,” a story he’s never read. Him: “It’s really Kafkaesque.” Her: “That’s because it’s written by Kafka.”) But reading this now, after having read The Trial and The Castle and hundreds of other books influenced by this (I feel like George Saunders’s “CivilWarLand” is an updated version of the “Theater of Oklahama”) it feels predictable, like an episode of 30 Rock or something.
So, how do you read Kafka now?
According to all of the intros and quotes and whatnot, this new Mark Harman translation of The Missing Person (which is marked in his desire to not correct a single error—from the intentional misspelling of “Oklahama” to the slip from dollars into pounds to the lack of serial commas, which is ironic, considering this is the American edition) presents the “funny” aspect of Kafka’s writing. But to be completely honest, although there are a few fun scenes, I didn’t find this actually “funny” . . . I mean, maybe in an academic chortling sense, like in the various minor send-ups of the American Dream (Karl is a rags-to-riches-to-lift-boy story because America is fucked), or in certain lines, like “No one wants to be an artist, but everyone wants to be paid for his work.” Amerika isn’t one one-hundredth of one percent as funny as, say, Infinite Jest.
That’s not to say that this book isn’t really good—it absolutely is. But take “Kafka” off the cover, and it’s a 2.5 or 3 star book out of 5 for me.
The sort of social criticism found in here is interestingly contemporary in a lot of ways, but also strikingly pat for a well-read contemporary reader:
And perhaps he wouldn’t even have been admitted to the United States, which was very likely according to his uncle, who was familiar with the immigration laws, and the authorities would have sent him home, completely ignoring the fact that he no longer had a home country. For one could not hope for pity here in this country, and the things that Karl had read about America in that regard were quite true; here it was only those who were fortunate who truly seemed to enjoy their good fortune amid the indifferent faces on all sides.
And it’s this “indifference” that always clogs me up when I’m reading Kafka. Sticking to this novel, the number of injustices heaped on poor Karl is astounding and a bit crippling if you approach this book from a realist angle. All the dismissals and abuses, starting with the stoker and ending with Karl being held hostage to serve a severely overweight “singer,” are depicted in ways that are claustrophobic and infuriating.
One way to read Kafka is historically: He never went to America, but pulled this critique together through other sources, so what was he getting at exactly? And was the book supposed to end happily as he suggested, or like The Trial?
The unfinishedness of it all (the opening chapter, “The Stoker,” being the only part that was satisfactorily edited by Kafka himself) is another troubling aspect to approaching this. Sure, it gets scholars off in all sort of obtuse ways, but that doesn’t mean much to your standard educated reader. Sure, it’s “interesting” in ways that fill class time and shitty MLA presentations, but Amerika’s impact isn’t what it once might have been. The influence of the “Kafkaesque” mindset has, no doubt, and is crucial to understanding the period of art, literature, and society we’re currently living in, but the specific connection between this “novel” and the way one reads the world is a bit more tenuous.
What’s interesting about not-loving a pre-ordained book is that it makes me feel guilty. I’m intentionally eliding lots of aspects of this novel to make a really pedestrian point. That said, I think it’s easy as a publisher/review writer/wanna be respected reader to prop up the already blessed. This is one case where I don’t feel comfortable over-emphasizing the fun parts of the book, and would rather just say, “yeah, it’s just OK.”