The latest addition to our Reviews Section is something I wrote about Mark Harman’s translation of Amerika by Franz Kafka, which is the book we’re discussion at the first ever Writers & Books/Plüb Book Club. (Which my iPhone autocorrected to “Book Clüb,” so fuck and yes.)
Anyway, I’m not sure how I never read this before, but I am sure that this isn’t the perfect book for me to be reading at this time . . . Nevertheless, it’s Kafka, it’s stimulating, it brings things up, and I’ve tried to encapsulate my 2013 readerly reaction to this:
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?
To read the full piece, just click here. And yes, this is how I spent the first day of 2013—writing a review of Kafka. I LOVE YOU, THREE PERCENT READERS.
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