“Kafkaesque” is a word used very often to describe bureaucratic snafus and paradoxes. Even people who have never read a word of Kafka use it to describe their encounter with the Department of Motor Vehicles, or airport security. So pervasive has “Kafkaesque” become that it has nearly lost its link with the works of Franz Kafka. When it comes to trying to summarise this wonderful anthology, I have something of a dilemma. I would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone who has ever read any Kafka (even — perhaps especially — if they didn’t like the experience), but what about those for whom Kafkaesque is a noun they use but Kafka is not someone they’ve read?
On reflection, the answer is yes. This anthology — which after all includes Kafka’s own “The Hunger Artist,” and a version of the same story by R. Crumb — is both an ideal introduction to Kafka’s writings and an surpassingly excellent anthology in its own right. An ideal introduction as the stories capture the strangeness, wonder, despair and humour which Kafka’s work exemplifies (often all at the same time). And an excellent anthology in its own right as stories such as Jeffrey Ford’s “Bright Morning” and T.C. Boyle’s “The Big Garage” would be worthy inclusions in any collection of speculative, surreal, slipstream-ish (not to nail the genre coffin lid on too tight) stories.
This beautifully designed little volume consists of eighteen stories (as well as a witty, insightful introduction from the editors, and a handy Kafka chronology) each of which is preceded by a brief piece from the story’s author on Kafka’s influence on them and the story. After each story the editors provide their thoughts on the story. So what we have is a sort of extension of the anthology concept. Not only does each story itself reflect and deepen our reading of Kafka, the authors’ and editors’ contributions deepen our appreciation not just of the story, or of Kafka, but of the whole web of influences and reflections that every author exists in.
In a famous essay, “Kafka and His Precursors,” Jorge Luis Borges identified a diverse band of stories, poems and essays which bore the mark of Kafka. They were an assorted bunch — Browning, Kierkegaard, Léon Bloy, Zeno of the eponymous paradox inter alia. As Borges wrote, these were not necessarily authors we would have linked were it not for Kafka. Yet there is unmistakably something of the Kafka spirit about the works he discusses. Kafka creates his precursors, as much as his precursors created him. His work modified our perception of the past, as it will modify that of the future.
Of course, our perception of Kafka is modified by our own preoccupations and concerns. Kafka’s own work never contains the word “Jew” and explicit consideration of Jewishness is absent. Many of the stories in this collection deal with themes of Jewishness. Our contemporary concern with ethnicity and diversity is surely part of this; more significant may be the Holocaust. Kafka’s work is often seen as a prefiguration of the totalitarianisms of the Twentieth Century, and also as a premonition of the attempted industrial extermination of a whole population. Orson Welles, in his film version of The Trial, described his final scene as an explicit invocation of the Holocaust; we read Kafka now in the shadow of an event that began fourteen years after he died. Tamar Yellin’s excellent “Kafka in Bronteland” explores Kafka’s Jewishness — and the narrator’s — in a way that is never strained or (despite what one might think from the title) overly “literary.” It is the final story in the anthology and one that has a real sense of compressed power, a sense of being a summing up that opens up new possibilities.
I am being rather perverse discussing the final story first. Some of the stories, such as Borges’ own “The Lottery in Babylon” and J.G. Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant,” are Kafkaesque in spirit. Others, such as Carol Emshwiller’s “Report to the Men’s Club,” Damon Knight’s “The Handler” and Boyle’s “The Big Garage” use Kafkaian tropes and themes (with varying degrees of explicitness) but do not invoke Franz by name. Of course, as readers we may think we are finding allusions when the author hasn’t meant there to be. Eileen Gunn, in her reflection on her insect transformation story “Stable Strategies For Middle Management,” describes how her inspiration came from a particularly anthropomorphic sentence from David Attenborough’s Life On Earth: A Natural History. It was only later, discussing her work on the story with a writer friend, that she realised the Kafkaian parallels. And now the story takes its place in an anthology of stories “inspired by Franz Kafka.”
Another strain — and possibly the stories which Kafka aficionados will perhaps get more out of than the Kafka virgin — is the story in which Kafka and his works feature directly. I have to say these were the stories I enjoyed most myself — and in their invention and wit, I personally feel confident that the hypothetical person who had never read a word of Kafka would too. “Bright Morning” is a perfect example, a tale which Jeffrey Ford wrote partly to exorcise the overwhelming influence of Kafka, which combines weird wit, vampirism, and a very literary ghost story into a package that may be the most haunting short story I’ve read all year. Johnathan Lethem and Carter Scholz’s “Receding Horizon” has Kafka survive his tuberculosis and cross the Atlantic, changes his name to Jack Dawson, become a screenwriter and work with his near-namesake Frank Capra. The story becomes a retelling of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Quentin Tarantino said once that what he found really interesting about Capra’s seasonal tale of Everyman realising his indispensability was not the redemptive ending but the despair and alienation of George Bailey. Lethem and Scholz insert themselves into the narrative in the best metafictional tradition, yet the whole thing works and never seems overly contrived or clever-clever.
Scholz, as a solo writer, is represented by “The Amount to Carry,” which takes Kafka’s day job in the insurance industry and imagines him crossing the Atlantic (a recurrent theme of quite a few of these stories) to attend a conference where he meets his fellow insurance professionals Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens. Lethem and Scholz have co written a book of five stories on Kafka in America, Kafka Americana, published originally by Subterranean Press and republished by W.W. Norton.
Paul di Fillipo’s “The Jackdaw’s Last Case” (at this point the reader may be interested to know that kavka is the Czech for “jackdaw”) is perhaps the wildest, most fun reimagining of the real Franz Kafka, this time as a caped crusader against crime in New York. Kafka writes for a newspaper owned by Bernarr Macfadden, a historical figure I had never heard of and I am eternally grateful to di Fillipo that now I have.
What this collection is, above all, is entertaining. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Kafka is actually very funny, which is not what one is usually meant by the popular word “Kafkaesque.” As Rudy Rucker, author of gothic identify-shift of “The 57th Franz Kafka,” observes in his pre-story reflection: “Kafka himself considered his stories to be funny. His friend Max Brod reports that Kafka once fell out of his chair from laughing so hard while reading aloud from one of his works, perhaps from Die Verwandlung, that is, ‘The Metamorphosis.’ Our puritanical and self-aggrandizing American culture tends to make out Kafka’s work to be solemn and portentous. But it’s funny the same way as Donald Duck comics.”
The one literary work I thought might have been included but wasn’t was an excerpt from Alan Bennet’s play Kafka’s Dick, or Bennet’s mordantly witty introduction, which explored the legacy of Max Brod and what it means to be talented and hard working yet overshadowed by genius (I do not know enough about Brod’s real life to know if this reflects reality, or if it is a Amadeus style myth).
Beautifully designed, typeset and presented, it is an example of what superb artefacts physical books can be. Even the less engaging or entertaining stories manage to provoke thought, to be part of a great conversation between Kafka, the authors, the editors, and ourselves. Borges described how Kafka both created and was created by his precursors; the stories in this anthology are not only to be read in the shadow of Kafka but modify our own perception of the master.