“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”—Audre Lorde
At that unhappy moment when Donald Trump took the oath of office with what has proven to be an attitude of obscene disingenuity, I happened to be 38,000 miles in the air somewhere above the Pacific off the coast of California. By happy and fortuitous circumstance, I was in possession of a ticket to Honolulu in January, the month when most of my colleagues’ professional society of literary scholars chooses to force its members into dreary hotel conference rooms in Boston or Chicago. By unhappy circumstance, of course, this day scheduled for my trip to God’s own terrestrial paradise (everything they say of Hawaii is true) happened to be the genesis of our never-ending Annus horribilis. All morning I’d harbored irrational fears about what would happen at the exact second when Trump put his hand to Bible (for the first time I assume). When I bundled into a cab on First Avenue headed on the Van Wyck towards Kennedy, the pink-gauze sky was just breaking over shrouded Brooklyn and Queens and Barack Obama was still president.
Half-a-day later, when we touched down some 5,000 miles away, having completely embargoed myself of any social media or news, and thus being blissfully unaware of “American carnage” and the inauguration speech that even George W. Bush thought was “weird shit,” I was able to fall asleep near Oahu sands in a cocoon of immense privilege while pretending that I was somehow not even in America anymore (Trump started his political career claiming something similar). With morning, I first encountered Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who in recent years has attempted to rehabilitate himself on Dancing with the Stars in that characteristically malevolent and tacky way that Americans have perfected, with his bizarre insistence that the National Mall contained “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” an easily disproven claim. A day later, and Trump adviser and amoral mercenary Kellyanne Conway would defend Spicer while on Meet the Press, arguing simply that they were in possession of “alternative facts.”
Because a Catholic scrupulosity compels me to never totally enjoy a vacation, I’d taken with me the Anglo-Russian television producer and London School of Economics media theorist Peter Pomerantsev’s crucial Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. When I came across the unfamiliar title at the Strand’s Central Park book stand a few days before, I suspected that there might be something helpful in Pomerantsev’s account of how the Kremlin had constructed a strange, chimerical, mutant form of authoritarianism that wasn’t just built on lies, but where lies themselves became the operative ideology, an epistemically anarchic relativism that he called “post-modern dictatorship.” The son of Soviet dissidents who moved to Britain and later Germany, where his father first worked in Russian programing for the BBC and then Radio Free Europe, Pomerantsev would later spend a decade in his native country also working in media, where he could watch as Vladimir Putin, with the assistance of Svengalis like Vladislav Surkov, mastered the dizzying, confusing, relativist aesthetics of modern Kremlin propaganda.
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible presents a Russian authoritarianism that owes as much to the cruelty of reality television as the Stalinist show trial; as much as they used to make the commissar vanish, they’re just as content to make people disbelieve the commissar (though ricin is still useful sometimes). Pomerantsev describes a country that “had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression—from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich—that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and position or belief is mutable,” so that the Russian state can be defender of a staunchly reactionary traditionalist order when that benefits its aims, or the battle-hardened fighter of fascism when that perspective assists it. What Putinism represents, argues Pomerantsev, is not ideology so much as something transcendent of truth or falsehood, where lies aren’t strategy so much as faith itself.
Now Pomerantsev broadens his scope out from Moscow, to London, Washington, Belgrade, Manila, Beijing, Mexico City, and that nebulous universe that exists in the connection between modems and smartphones in his second book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. He describes a “world of dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, fake news, deep fakes, brainwashing, trolls, ISIS, Putin. Trump,” where the author meets “Twitter revolutionaries and pop-up populists, trolls and elves, ‘behavioral change’ salesmen and Infowar charlatans, Jihadi fan-boys, Identitarians, truth cops, and bot herders.” While not always as unified as Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, Pomerantsev’s latest book (culled from essays originally published in The Guardian, Granta, The American Interest, and The London Review of Books) does provide a primer on how our dystopian new reality of digital simulacra came to be, what it has come to mean, and possibly how we might mitigate the worst of its effects.
Finding ferry-people across this social media Styx, Pomerantsev talks to experts like Russian dissident Lydia Savchuk who infiltrated the Internet Research Agency, the infamous St. Petersburg “troll farm” that long played a role in Moscow politics and that during the 2016 presidential elections saw “Over thirty million Americans… [share] its content among their friends and families.” The author doesn’t limit his analysis to the Kremlin, however, noting that Putinism is but “one front of a vast, global phenomenon.” Something those of us who are horrified by Trump would do well to keep at the forefront of our minds; for there is a certain type of centrist “#Resistance” person addicted to MSNBC and long conspiratorial Twitter threads who harbors the dangerous illusion that Trump is the disease and not the symptom, and that some mythic “normalcy” can be returned upon his ejection. There is also a variety of further-left individual (of which I suppose I’d include myself as a cautious fellow-traveler) who find the first group’s thinking unhelpful, but then overcorrect and end up minimizing the legitimate ideological and technological threats posed by a Kremlin that’s made itself the international of a revanchist order. What Pomerantsev makes clear is that this phenomenon is one that isn’t limited to one country—that’s precisely the point. Our crisis of democracy does not begin and end at the United States.
To that end, This Is Not Propaganda includes interviews with dissidents, hackers, and activists around the world who are attempting to fight a multi-pronged war against the cyber divisions of authoritarian states that have been able to so effectively weaponize information (and the appearance of information) over the past decade. These include the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa who has repeatedly been the target of digital attacks directed by the authoritarian president Roderigo Duterte, the Serbian democracy activist Srđa Popović who was instrumental in the movement against war criminal Slobodan Milosevic (and also literally wrote the guidebook for 21st-century agitators against oppressive governments) and the Mexican hacker Alberto Escorcia who has developed strategies for protestors to reverse-engineer some of the very same technologies used by states to spread disinformation. Pomerantsev even talks with the godfather of digital disinformation, the advertiser, analyst, and cofounder of Cambridge Analytica (which played such a decisive role in the 2016 election) Nigel Oakes. What emerges is an incomplete and sometimes inchoate picture of the second decade of our century, though one that still provides some names, faces, and intentions behind the dark avatars that swarm through Twitter like locusts spreading memes and propaganda, and the good wizards who’ve made it their mission to stop them.
Any radically new information technology alters human consciousness, and has the potential to promulgate disinformation amongst a credulous public not yet literate in the vagaries of the new order. Medieval manuscripts were no more accurate than websites; 14th-century readers of the anonymous The Travels of Sir John Mandeville thrilled to stories about dog-headed Cynocephalics, and two centuries later a rash of printed apocalyptic pamphlets, like the “English Nostradamus” Mother Shipton’s pseudographical prophecies, spread throughout Europe, driving paranoia as surely as Reddit and Twitter defuse QAnon conspiracy theories today. Yet Pomerantsev would be correct in saying that our current predicament is of a different kind, for unlike manuscript or print, our smartphones make us veritable cyborgs, creatures with super computers in our pockets who are continually, potentially connected by network to every other fellow cyborg in the world. This relativist consensus, an epistemic collapse that allows everyone to choose whatever truth is convenient to them, is a type of post-modern magical thinking. However, it isn’t just a return to archaic superstitions, but a reversal of the Enlightenment project that was based in an idea of objectivity that made the work of democracy possible. “There is nothing new about politicians lying,” writes Pomerantsev, “but what seems novel is their acting as if they don’t care whether what they say is true or false.”
We see this happening in real time if we compare the (obvious to some of us at the time) bogus rationale that the Bush administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the similar way that the Trump administration has gone about validating the extrajudicial assassination of Qassem Soleimani. While the former was an unmitigated human disaster and the later may yet hopefully prove to not result in the same scope of death, the Bush administration operated as if falsehood and truth were actual categories, even while they consciously chose to mislead. They operated in quasi-official channels, sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations to make the case for war with (compromised) intelligence, and cobbling together a coalition of other countries that supported the invasion. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on the other hand, tells us to believe that Soleimani was imminently about to attack U.S. interests, and doesn’t even bother to construct a more fully fleshed out lie. At that point, we’ve left even the realm of falsehood, and enter the halls of magic. Pomerantsev explains that “Fox and the Kremlin exploit the same ideas: If reality is malleable, why can’t they introduce their own versions too? And if feelings are emancipatory, why can’t they invoke their own? With the idea of objectivity discredited, the grounds on which one could argue against them rationally disappears.”
My above account lets the Bush administration off the hook entirely too much, for the fact is that Trump is just better at deconstructing the division between truth and lie than they were. That most people know that Trump is lying—and that he still gets away with it—counterintuitively shows how masterful said lying is. Much of this has to do with the way the social media ecosystem of Facebook and Twitter have altered how people understand reality; Trump doesn’t have to make any case for the third of the country that’s going to believe what he says, no matter how absurd it might be—they’ve already made that case themselves in their own heads. The previous Republican administration had already flirted with epistemological tweaking during the Iraq catastrophe; one should remember the anonymous source high in the White House who in a gambit worthy of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard dismissed what he called “the reality-based community” to New York Times Magazine reporter Ron Susskind. Propaganda has always traded in flat-out lying—that’s its nature. Part of Pomerantsev’s argument, however, is that the new world of digital misleading has in some sense democratized tyranny, making all of us unwilling accomplices in spreading a constructed reality, whereas in the past such campaigns were obviously top-down.
Glib traditionalists could point to “post-modernism” as the origin of this free-for-all, but our current crisis of epistemology doesn’t come from French academic salons, but rather the cynical calculations of political pragmatism. Charting how the democratic promise unleashed by the fall of communism in 1989 cynically ended with the justifications for the Iraq war in 2003, Pomerantsev notes that “Words and images filled with potent meaning in East Berlin ended in Baghdad.” With democratizing events as varied as the collapse of Soviet authoritarianism, the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, the exile of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the resignation of Suharto in Indonesia, and the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa, it could seem obvious to the self-satisfied liberal that the moral arc of history did indeed predictably move towards justice. “If once upon a time one could speak confidently about history’s waves of democratization flowing in a single current,” Pomerantsev writes, “now a great storm has broken out and it’s hard to tell what’s flowing where and in which direction.” We’re done with Ceausescu, Marcos, and Suharto, but now we have Putin, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jair Bolsonaro, Duterte, and Trump. Such is the state as aptly described by documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor in her perceptive book Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone when she writes that “Political gridlock, corruption, unaccountable representatives, and the lack of meaningful alternatives incense people across the ideological spectrum; their anger simmers at dehumanizing bureaucracy, blatant hypocrisy, and lack of voice.” Into that vacuum defuses the state agitprop of cynical actors willing to hijack our agency for their own coercive ends.
Such meme engineering rewrites the DNA of consciousness, acting as a parasite in the host and completely altering their worldview. In a passage that will no doubt have many nodding in recognition, Pomerantsev describes “people I have known my whole life [that] slip away from me on social media, reposting conspiracies from sources I have never heard of… which is rearranging our relations and identities with its own logic, or in the cause of someone else’s interests we can’t even see.” By way of making contrast between the previous century’s authoritarians and today’s savvier Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley-trained versions, Pomerantsev begins each chapter with a biographical account of his own parent’s running afoul of the Soviet government during the 1970s. In his family’s story, information was something emancipatory that could dispel the official Kremlin line, with censorship the cudgel used by the Soviets to oppress those who opposed them. Today, however, and it’s a surfeit of information that does the same, so much data that nobody can sort through it.
Censorship in 2020 functions not literally, but rather by screaming untruths so loudly through so many channels that reality itself is drowned out. Appropriately enough this is a free market version of propaganda, the tools of the state’s lies privatized and outsourced to your friends, family, and coworkers. The irony is that in the Soviet Union, everybody knew that what Pravda printed was a lie; today people share links from dubious sites pushing a line to assist the status quo under the guise of subversion. Our dire situation was summed up by the Ukrainian investigator Tatyana Gerasimova, who helped conduct an investigation of a tragic fire in Odessa that occurred following the Russian invasion, and which separatists and nationalists each blamed the other for, the truth ultimately being more complicated. Despite that nuance, Gerasimova explains that the truth can’t set one free if you’re incapable of recognizing the truth when presented with it. “Everyone lives in their own reality, everyone has their own truth, there is no reconciliation. We created the investigation to show that there is a difference between truth and lies. In that sense we failed.” So inured are we to the idea that there might be a truth, that there has been a trickle-down rewriting of reality, where now Big Brother doesn’t even have to convince you that 2+2=5. You saw it memed by your uncle on Facebook (the Deep State was the one who said 2+2=4 all along).
Our hellscape’s prophet of authoritarianism is less Franz Kafka than Philip K. Dick. Kafka’s vision of totalitarianism is of the show-trial, the prison, the centrally organized bureaucratic state whereby in The Castle he could write, “If a man has his eyes bound, you can encourage him as much as you like to stare through the bandage, but he’ll never see anything.” In our current world, we’ve put the bandage on ourselves and forgotten that we’re wearing it. Ours is much closer to the neon cacophony of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep where a character says “Everything is true…Everything anybody has ever thought.” The cruel irony of that is if everything is true, then nothing is true; if everything is permitted, then nothing is.
Pomerantsev writes that “More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful. But it also has given the powerful new ways to crush and silence dissent.” As it has turned out it’s the melee of continual information shared by our zombified fellow citizens that’s proven the easiest method to awash us in propaganda. Compared to the authoritarians of the past, Pomerantsev writes that “today’s strongmen are not so rigid. Instead of hanging on to one single ideology, they have learned to speak with different tongues.” To the detriment of all of us, one of the languages they’re most proficient in is a rhetoric that has been available on A.M. radio and amongst shock jocks and stand-up comics for generations, but that has been divorced from any transgressive import it may have once had, now rather serving the purposes of state power.
Leftists were once the funny ones, the Dadaist antics of groups like the Yippies potently using rude and obscene humor to challenge state and corporate hegemony, for “laughter removes the aura of impenetrability around an authoritarian leader.” A perusal of much of woke Twitter will demonstrate that the left has disastrously ceded ground in this regard, the import of humor being taken up by the right in a manner that poses serious challenges to the cause of justice. Pomerantsev recounts visiting popular Manila comedy clubs where stand-ups “pick victims in the audience and roast them, taunting them about the size of their penises, or for their weight, and this right in front of entire families who all laugh along in the relatives’ humiliation.” Duterte’s rhetoric mimics such stand-ups exactly, and goes a long way to explaining his popularity in the ostensibly socially conservative nation. “It’s a type of humor he shares with a troupe of male leaders across the world… [where] toilet humor is used to show how ‘anti-establishment’ they are.”
Such is the disingenuous use of “I was just joking” by leaders from Putin to Trump, who are able to deploy a cavalier cruelty without repercussions. It’s an ingenious hacking of liberals’ natural affinity for the freedom of speech, but done for profoundly illiberal aims. We still understandably valorize the jester speaking truth to power, men like Bill Hicks and George Carlin who were willing to say the seven words you can’t say on television, because if you’re barred from saying the word “fuck” then you’re barred from saying “fuck the president.” But our new authoritarians understand something about amoral tools—they can be asymmetrically used. Pomerantsev notes that “when such language is used consistently by men with real power to degrade those weaker, this humor becomes menacing: It lays the linguistic path to humiliating victims in other ways as well, to as pace where all norms disappear.” Laughter, it seems, is indeed indelible in the hippocampus.
Voters with NPR tote-bags and New Yorker subscriptions may have been caught off guard by the 2016 election results, but they were never the audience for The Apprentice anyhow. The current crisis in democracy, facilitated by cruel and relativist propaganda, is much less surprising if you’re familiar with the past several decades of popular culture that doesn’t receive prestige awards. Trump’s rhetoric matches not the highfalutin pretensions of William F. Buckley, George Will, and The National Review, but it owes everything to A.M. radio sports talk, shock jocks like Don Imus and Howard Stern (neither of whom were supporters of the White House’s current occupant), reality television, and the preening and theatrics of World Wrestling Entertainment. Following the release of the Access Hollywood tape, there was much hand-wringing about how people don’t talk like Trump did in that video—but of course many people do.
For his supporters, the “joy of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit, the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense,” writes Pomerantsev. It’s not that they’re unaware of the cruelty; the cruelty is the point. While I had long been more pessimistic about the election then many of my liberal friends and colleagues, I definitively knew that Hillary Clinton would lose when on that Tuesday night I saw CNN interview a woman in a Pennsylvania bar (of the sort that I’m estimably familiar with) who dismissed the “pussy grabbing” comments by saying (and I paraphrase) “I don’t care. Lots of women talk that way too.” From a certain perspective, the election of Trump—a gameshow host who is in the WWE Hall of Fame and made his entertainment career appearing on Stern and talking about how his daughter is sexy—seems less a fluke and more a dispiriting inevitability.
This Is Not Propaganda is not necessarily a hopeful read. True, some of the figures whom he speaks with, from Popović to Escorcia, have and do contend with far worse than we do, and they are able to keep a type of revolutionary optimism. It’s hard to ignore Trump, and in some cases it’s malpractice not to consider him when necessity compels us. And yet few of us will wish on our death-beds that we’d wasted more words on his inanities, his narcissism, his bloated absurdity. One of authoritarianism’s most insidious characteristics is that it doesn’t give you the option to ignore it.
Pomerantsev doesn’t necessarily offer the average citizen much in the way of a map out of the quagmire, though that’s less his intent. He alludes that if we’re to hope for any kind of restoration of truth, of objectivity, of rationality, of democracy, that we must “formulate a vision of the alternative political model you want to see.” What this looks like will be hard to say, but it’s necessary to figure that out. What it won’t look like is the endless, lame obsession over Trump, who wants us to obsess over him: all of our own memes inexpertly put together about “Mango Mussolini,” “Cheeto Jesus,” and “Drumpf.” We can’t win that game, so let’s stop playing it. Tyrants may not believe in truth, but there should be succor in knowing that truth is very much real—and patient. “It’s coming from the feel / That this ain’t exactly real,” wrote that prophet Leonard Cohen, “Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.” And yet the chorus could still be sung that “Democracy is coming to the USA.” Hopefully.
Image: rob walsh
OK, Mr. Field—the debut novel from the South African-born, London-based writer Katharine Kilalea—is the story of a man and a house. Mr. Field, a concert pianist who lives in London, suffers a wrist injury after a performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” With the payout he receives, he buys a house in Cape Town that he had read about on the train before the accident occurred and moves there with his wife, to her mild dismay. The house, known as the House for the Study of Water, is no ordinary structure. It’s one of a number of replicas of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a modernist building that stands outside Paris.
As Mr. Field and his wife begin their new life in the House for the Study of Water, their home’s alienating architecture begins to take a toll—first on their relationship, and ultimately on Mr. Field’s grip on reality. Take, for instance, this passage, in which he gazes out a window after a gust of wind blows out the glass:
Everything was exactly the same as it always had been, of course it was, but there was something vague about the way my eyes registered the world. Whereas previously I could see things clearly—the trees, even their individual leaves—now when I looked out the low-flying gulls were almost indistinguishable from the white specks that came off the tops of the waves. Things were on the cusp of not being themselves. I had the idea that it wasn’t my vision deteriorating but the very glue which held the objects of the world together growing old and weak.
Kilalea’s lucid prose absorbs the reader into Mr. Field’s increasingly uncanny experience of his surroundings and himself. This slow, steady unhinging reveals the strangeness of his world—and ours—anew.
Kilalea was kind enough to answer my questions about the novel over email.
The Millions: What was the initial impulse behind writing OK, Mr. Field? How did that first idea develop into what the novel became?
Katharine Kilalea: Some time ago I visited the Villa Savoye, which most people seem to love, and hated it. I’d already spent over a year writing a dissertation on the perversity of the building—the unnaturally narrow shape of its windows, the coyly hidden position of its entrance—without seeing it in its actuality, so I was surprised to discover that the building, which in my imagination had been something wonderful, was in fact very ordinary. And so unsexy! The stud walls were so porous that I could hear people in other rooms, talking, going to the toilet—presumably, if you lived there, having sex. It reminded me of the overexposed feeling I’d get when writing (or publishing) poetry. I was working for Farshid Moussavi, the architect, at the time. “Why are you writing a book about a building that you hate?” she said. Sometimes it occurred to me that if I could work out why I hated the Villa Savoye I might understand what I hated about writing poetry. Sometimes it seemed like I was using the Villa Savoye to write about a feeling, a kind of desire I suppose, which I was reluctant to write about directly because (in the same way as one ought not to take too much pleasure in an ice cream, say, or a dog, or a question) there’s an element of perversity in it. The building stood in front of that feeling, or stood in for it, as if substituting the words “feeling close” with “being close.”
TM: OK, Mr. Field is concerned, in part, with the interplay between outward order and internal disarray. I see that conflict as embodied in the House for the Study of Water, which is this impeccably designed living space that becomes the site for its occupant’s unraveling. It’s a feature, too, of the way you’ve designed the novel itself: Its motion is careful and its prose restrained as the world of its protagonist comes apart. Do you see that tension between order and disorder as an animating force in the novel? Is it a feature of the act of writing?
KK: The idea of order in a novel is, I think, quite literally the ordering of events. That’s what animates a novel, the knowledge I have from the moment I open it that something is going to happen, the business of waiting, trusting that one thing will lead to another to some climax or conclusion. It’s interesting; in poetry, “order”—rhythm, especially—guards against disorder, whereas in a novel, order stands against dullness. Which differentiates fiction from life—makes it more sexlike than lifelike—because in life, of course, there’s the possibility that nothing will change, nothing will happen. The tension, for me, is the wedge which this idea of progress drives between fiction and life. Is what makes a novel worth going on reading so different from what makes a life going on living? (What makes me go on living? Nothing. I just do!) I paid attention to climaxes while I was reading. The climaxes of some of my favorite books, instead of being moments of clarity or revelation, seemed to be points of disappearing or dissolving. They had a vague, misty quality. In The Magic Mountain, having spent hundreds of pages waiting for Hans Castorp to finally speak to Claudia Chauchat, their conversation is in French so I can’t understand it. Having spent weeks reading about K.’s quest to reach the Castle, Burghel’s offer to help is met with a smile, not because the object of K.’s desire is finally within reach but because he’s about to fall asleep.
TM: Another contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of the novel is the way that structures meant to foster intimacy can instead inspire isolation. As a definition we encounter in the novel has it, a house is “a machine for living in together,” yet it’s the House for the Study of Water that drives Mr. Field and his wife irrevocably apart. Music, too, often functions as a way of bringing people together, but in the novel it works in the opposite way: Mr. Field’s performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” early in the novel alienates him from his audience, and when he plays it again later, alone, it carries him further into himself. What is it about those structures for connecting us—homes, songs—that can instead cut us off from one another? What makes that an interesting subject to you?
KK: I’m fascinated by the difference between loneliness and too much intimacy. The Villa Savoye seemed to think of intimacy as a kind of heightened proximity to other people—seeing each other and hearing each other and being with each other constantly. That much “togetherness” would drive me mad. In fact, Le Corbusier’s descriptions of how his buildings bring their inhabitants closer to nature reminds me of Daniel Schreber (famously analyzed by Freud), whose psychosis took the form of an overly intimate relationship with the outside world: The sun spoke to him, birds read his thoughts. Schreber tried to drown out the voices by reciting poems and playing the piano. So he used music as a way of keeping things out, shutting himself in. That’s my experience of music: The more I’m carried away by it, the more I find myself thinking about myself.
TM: This is your first novel but your second book. Your first was a book of poetry. How was writing this book different from writing poetry? In what ways, if any, do you see the novel as continuous with your poetic project?
KK: Somewhere between writing my book of poetry and this novel, I wrote a long poem which I think of as the hinge between the two. The poem is the opposite of prosaic—the images don’t make sense, the syntax doesn’t make sense, some of the words are nonsense. It was written at a time when, for reasons that were never clear, I had great difficulty in expressing myself. I was unable to speak properly; I couldn’t finish sentences and often couldn’t find the right word at the right time. Perhaps the music of the poem supplemented those unfinished thoughts and made sense of them, because I couldn’t write poems after that. Then, after a while, sentences started to appear. I miss poetry, but it’s a great relief to be able say something rather than having to convey it intravenously, as is the way of poetry.
TM: Many of my favorite recent novels were written by writers who began their careers as poets—Ben Lerner, Garth Greenwell, Anna Moschovakis, and you. Would it make sense to you to think of the contemporary English “poet’s novel” as a form with certain specific characteristics? What might those be?
KK: I’m not at all confident about this, but here goes … I wonder whether Ben Lerner and Garth Greenwell’s novels (I’m looking forward to reading Anna Moschovakis) share a cynicism about instinct, or the naturalness of feelings. There is a sense of feelings behind feelings, thoughts beneath thoughts; you settle on something only to discover, a moment later, something different buried beneath it. It makes it impossible to land anywhere, which is something I recognize from poetry, the sense that everything must be unsettled, that you think of a thing one way, but really …
TM: One of the features of OK, Mr. Field I found most compelling is the subtle prominence of animal life, from the sea or sea-adjacent creatures (seals, squid, seagulls) discussed when Mr. Field goes to the restaurant to the spider that he sets on fire to the dog that becomes his companion. What role do you see animals as playing in the novel?
KK: It’s not easy to describe feelings. You can only describe what caused them or what it looks like when a person is smiling, crying, etc. The thing about animals is that, since they can’t speak, perhaps, their bodies are very articulate—they seem to register feelings with their whole bodies through tail wagging, head cocking, etc. Also, although animals seem to experience roughly the same feelings as we do—guilt, affection, enjoyment, being left out, etc.—they’re not expected to be moral. For example, whereas people are expected to experience attraction to other people, preferably ones of a similar age, background, and so on, dogs are allowed to hump table legs or handbags.
TM: In an early scene, when Mr. Field meets Hannah Kallenbach, he notices a shelf filled with “big books, the kind of grand European novels which concern themselves with the human condition.” I thought of this as a winking way in which the novel both acknowledges the tradition of which it is a part (it’s also a novel that explicitly concerns itself with the human condition) and differentiates itself (it’s not a big book). Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned The Magic Mountain as an influence. What other books do you consider OK, Mr. Field in conversation with?
KK: I do miss the modernist project’s ambition to tackle death, love, the meaning of life. I’m still anxious about the meaning of life! There were a few books which were—are—always on my desk while writing: The Magic Mountain, Correction, The Castle, and Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles, all of which I treat as odd love stories: for death, a castle, a soap bubble, a foetus, a placenta … Bernhard’s Correction and The Loser were too thematically similar to OK, Mr. Field to ignore, though anyone trying to write while reading Bernhard knows how terribly infectious his style can be.
TM: In the novel, Mr. Field moves from England to South Africa, which is the reverse of the path of your own life. What, if anything, do you see as distinctly English or South African about the novel, or even distinctive of the interchange between the two?
KK: OK, Mr. Field was initially set in the Alps—as an homage to The Magic Mountain, I think—but I’d only been there once, so halfway through, I transposed it into South Africa, which I knew better. I realized, then, how dominating a presence South Africa can be, because suddenly I felt the need to write in great detail about its sunsets, the seaweed, etc. (which felt wrong: too much looking out, not enough looking in). There is a perverse pleasure in withholding that visual description, because the landscape is beautiful, yet that restraint seems common among South African novelists: Their books have an arid quality; they don’t sing. The changing of countries at the last moment was also willfully contrary, a corrective to the unspoken regulation that a South African writer should concern themselves primarily with South Africa and things associated with South Africa.
TM: What are you reading and working on now?
KK: I’m about to re-read Lolita. It’s not my favorite Nabokov, but I’d like to write about, and think about, sexuality, in an amoral way.
Growing up as a vegetarian in rural England in the ’90s, I was sometimes under the impression that my lifestyle was unusual—if not radical. In recent years, vegetarianism (and reduced-meat diets) have become more mainstream even in rural areas.
With time I’ve come to realize that there have always been vegetarians and vegetarian communities. Perhaps the more interesting ones for me are the artists and thinkers who go against the grain, choosing to think and live differently from the people around them. There is sometimes difficulty in ascertaining the validity of claims that certain historical figures actually followed a vegetarian lifestyle. For Da Vinci we have both Giorgio Vasari’s accounts and the letters between Andrea Corsali and Da Vinci’s patron Giuliano de’ Medici as convincing sources; for Pythagoras we have a number of ancient sources, as well as his enduring legacy. My awareness of Albert Einstein’s vegetarianism comes from primary sources—letters to Hans Muehsam and Max Kariel.
I will employ the term “vegetarian sentiment” here, as vegetarianism and veganism are ideologies before they are followed through in lifestyle and dietary choices. There are many writers and thinkers who advocate for vegetarianism and/or animal rights but still consume flesh meat. There’s Alice Walker, who I’ll talk about in more detail later; there’s Voltaire, who argued fervently against Descartes’s belief that animals were mere machines (though he may have been a practicing vegetarian based on what he writes in Dictionnaire Philosophique: “Men fed upon carnage, and drinking strong drinks, have all an impoisoned and acrid blood which drives them mad in a hundred different ways.”
Anna Sewell, through her children’s novel Black Beauty, taught young and old readers about how to treat both animals and humans with kindness—and in turn spurred progression in the animal welfare movement.
Raskolinov’s fearful horse dream in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is symbolic of what is soon to come—though also revelatory of what the author feels about animals. In his later novel The Brothers Karamazov, there’s a discussion between Alyosha and the elder Zosima:
Love animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble their joy, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you—alas, it is true of almost every one of us!
Suffragists who fought for women’s rights were also heavily involved in campaigning against vivisection and the consumption of meat. Many suffragists thought that the adoption of a vegetarian diet could herald a new world where women were not confined to the kitchens. Carol J. Adams writes in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat (extract obtained from Stuff Mom Never Told You):
We can follow the historic alliance of feminism and vegetarianism in Utopian writings and societies, antivivisection activism, the temperance and suffrage movements, and twentieth century pacifism. Hydropathic institutes in the nineteenth century, which featured vegetarian regimens, were frequented by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and others. At a vegetarian banquet in 1853, the gathered guests lifted their alcohol-free glasses to toast: “Total Abstinence, Women’s Rights, and Vegetarianism.”
Recently a friend came to me asking for a recommendation for vegetarian literature. I was taken a little off guard, for I have never actively searched for books on vegetarianism. Why read to be convinced of an opinion I already share? Though I realized that I had read books by vegetarian authors (of fiction), and writers who have expressed a vegetarian sentiment. And though I couldn’t answer his question, it compelled me to pick up work by authors whose experiences of (and sometimes motivations for) vegetarianism were entirely different from my own.
While far from exhaustive, I shall discuss some among them here.
1. Franz Kafka
Max Brod is often remembered as the friend who wouldn’t burn Franz Kafka’s life’s work, as was asked of him by Kafka, instead publishing it posthumously. If it were not for his refusal to follow his friend’s instructions, we might not have stories such as The Metamorphosis and The Castle. But Brod was also a prolific published writer during his lifetime, and he eventually became Kafka’s biographer. Much of what we know about Kafka comes from Brod, including his experimentation with different diets—in part to ease his lifelong sickness.
One of the most striking images from Franz Kafka: A Biography is where Brod recalls how Kafka, a recently turned strict vegetarian, once visited the Berlin aquarium:
Suddenly he began to speak to the fish in their illuminated tanks, “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you any more.” …
Among my notes I find something else that Kafka said about vegetarianism…He compared vegetarians with the early Christians, persecuted everywhere, everywhere laughed at, and frequenting dirty haunts. “What is meant by its nature for the highest and the best, spreads among the lowly people.”
In a letter from Brod to Kafka’s fiancee Felice Bauer, Brod writes:
After years of trial and error Franz has at last found the only diet that suits him, the vegetarian one. For years he suffered from his stomach; now he is as healthy and as fit as I have ever known him. Then along come his parents, of course, and in the name of love try to force him back into eating meat and being ill—it is just the same with his sleeping habits. At last he has found what suits him best, he can sleep, can do his duty in that senseless office, and get on with his literary work. But then his parents…This really makes me bitter.
2. Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer returns to fellow Jewish writer Kafka’s moment at the Berlin aquarium throughout his first nonfiction work, Eating Animals. The book is the result of three years spent immersed in the world of animal agriculture. This was in part motivated by a desire to make an informed decision about what to feed his newborn son—but also to become more resolved with regard to his wavering vegetarianism. He makes the invisible realities for factory-farmed animals visible for himself and the reader, forcing us to think about what is impaled on our forks.
Eating Animals is essentially his own denunciation of factory farming, but it is also a reflection on the culture that surrounds meat eating: the history of ambivalence toward carnism; societal hypocrisies; the myth of consent and other stories cultures create for themselves to justify slaughter; the language we use to devalue some animals but place value in others that we love as companions.
In several places, Safran Foer refers back to that moment when Kafka looks at fish at the Berlin aquarium. He uses Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Kafka’s animal tales to frame this part of his own story. Benjamin tells us how Kafka’s animals are “receptacles of forgetting,” while shame—as paraphrased by Safran Foer—is “a response and a responsibility before invisible others.”
“What had moved Kafka to become vegetarian?” asks Safran Foer:
A possible answer lies in the connection Benjamin makes, on the one hand, between animals and shame, and on the other, between animals and forgetting. Shame is the work of memory against forgetting. Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely—yet not entirely—forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of our immediate satisfaction.
Shame doesn’t just prompt forgetting about the animals we harm. “What we forget about animals,” writes Safran Foer, “we begin to forget about ourselves.”
During the spring of 2007, Safran Foer lived in Berlin with his family, and they would visit the aquarium Kafka had visited the previous century—and like him, they would stare into the tanks at the sea life. “As a writer aware of that Kafka story, I came to feel a certain kind of shame at the aquarium,” he writes. Among the various manifestations of shame he experienced: shame at feeling “grossly inadequate” compared to his hero, shame at being a Jew in Berlin:
And then there was the shame in being human: the shame of knowing that twenty of the roughly thirty-five classified species of seahorse worldwide are threatened with extinction because they are killed “unintentionally” in seafood production. The shame of indiscriminate killing for no nutritional necessity or political cause or irrational hatred or intractable human conflict.
For Safran Foer, remembering thwarts forgetting when he visits the kill floor of Paradise Locker Meats and looks into the eyes of a pig who is minutes away from being slaughtered; he didn’t quite feel at ease being the pig’s last sight, though what he felt wasn’t quite shame either. “The pig wasn’t a receptacle of my forgetting,” he writes. “The animal was a receptacle of my concern. I felt—I feel—relief in that. My relief doesn’t matter to the pig. But it matters to me.”
3. Alice Walker
“KNOW what the caged bird feels,” wrote Paul Laurence Dunbar in a poem entitled “Sympathy.” With this poem, Dunbar—who was born to parents who had been enslaved before the American Civil War—opened up this dreaded comparison between human and animal slavery. The line was borrowed by Maya Angelou for the title of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Most will feel uncomfortable with comparisons between animal suffering and human suffering—the title of Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison acknowledges this. The African-American writer and self-described womanist Alice Walker, known best perhaps for The Color Purple, prefaced Marjorie Spiegel’s controversial title. Walker writes, “It is a comparison that, even for those of us who recognize its validity, is a difficult one to face. Especially so, if we are the descendants of slaves. Or of slave owners. Or of both. Especially so if we are also responsible in some way for the present treatment of animals.”
Though Walker acknowledges the difficulty of this comparison, she concludes that she agrees with Spiegel’s line of reason: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men. This is the gist of Spiegel’s cogent, humane and astute argument, and it is sound.”
Walker is not a vegetarian. In a book entitled The Chicken Chronicles, the author writes about her relationship with her flock of chickens. Rather than turn her head, Walker confronts her food vis-à-vis—in this way, the chicken is not a receptacle of her forgetting. Interviewer Diane Rehm expressed surprise upon learning that Walker eats birds. “I know, I know. It’s a contradiction and I have been a vegan and I’ve been a vegetarian,” replied Walker, “but from time to time, I do eat chicken. I grew up on chicken and I accept that.”
Vegetarianism, or veganism, is something to which Walker seems to aspire, though. To an audience at Emory University, the author talks about her love of cows and says she is glad she doesn’t eat them. She then recites a short poem she wrote for an Italian friend who wanted help giving up meat, “La Vaca”:
She does not think
4. Isaac Bashevis Singer
The comparison between human and animal slavery is not the only dreaded comparison; the Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer has become the classic reference for comparisons between intensive farming and the Holocaust. In “The Letter Writer,” he wrote, “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”
Singer was born in a village near Warsaw, Poland. His father was a Hasidic rabbi, while his mother was the daughter of the rabbi of Bilgoraj. Singer seemed destined to become a rabbi, too, though a brief enrollment at a rabbinical school turned him off the idea. He worked brief stints in a number of fields before emigrating to the United States, fearful of the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany. In New York City he worked as a journalist for a Yiddish-language newspaper before penning his own novels and short stories, including The Slave and The Family Moskat.
Vegetarianism crops up often in his work. Yet it is nowhere near as explicit as in “The Slaughterer,” a short story which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1967 and now resides in The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The story follows Yoineh Meir, a Jew who—like Singer—seems destined to become a rabbi. A competitor takes Meir’s place, and instead he is offered the role of the town’s ritual slaughterer. The career causes him daily anguish and eventually leads to his own untimely demise. The story is graphic and bloody, the protagonist sensitive and empathetic toward all living creatures:
Yoneih Meir no longer slept at night. If he dozed off, he was immediately beset by nightmares. Cows assumed human shape, with beards, and skullcaps over their horns. Yoineh Meir would be slaughtering a calf, but it would turn into a girl. Her neck throbbed, and she pleaded to be saved. She ran to the study house and splattered the courtyard with her blood. He even dreamed that he had slaughtered [his wife] instead of a sheep.
Yoineh Meir extends his love toward all animals when he realizes what it means to kill one. Later in the narrative, Singer writes that “when you slaughter a creature, you slaughter God.”
5. J.M. Coetzee
In his metafictional novella The Lives of Animals, Coetzee’s alter ego and fictional novelist Elizabeth Costello is invited to be a guest lecturer at a university’s annual literary seminary. Rather than talk about literature, she decides to talk about animal cruelty and in several places compares the mass slaughter of animals to the Holocaust:
The people who lived in the countryside around Treblinka—Poles, for the most part—said that they did not know what was going on in the camp; said that, while in a general way they might have guessed what was going on, they did not know for sure; said that, while in a sense they might have known, in another sense they did not know, could not afford to know, for their own sake. …
I return one last time to the places of death all around us, the places of slaughter to which, in a huge communal effort, we close our hearts. Each day a fresh holocaust, yet, as far as I can see, our moral being is untouched. …
It was from the Chicago stockyards that the Nazis learned how to process bodies.
We know Coetzee is a vegetarian and active animal rights advocate, though in The Lives of Animals it becomes difficult to distinguish between Elizabeth Costello’s views and J. M. Coetzee’s. He has written several op-eds for the Sydney Herald about beliefs we can safely say are his own.
In one article, Coetzee criticizes the manner in which consumers tend to idealize family farms:
It would be a mistake to idealize traditional animal husbandry as the standard by which the animal products industry falls short. Traditional animal husbandry is brutal enough, just on a smaller scale. A better standard by which to judge both practices would be the simple standard of humanity: is this truly the best that humans are capable of?
In another, Coetzee expresses his optimism concerning the compassion of children: “It takes but one glance into a slaughterhouse to turn a child into a lifelong vegetarian.”
6. V.S. Naipaul
V.S. Naipaul has a visceral response to the sight and smell of meat. Naipaul was born in Trinidad; unusual among Indian laborers in the Caribbean region, Naipaul’s paternal grandfather was a Brahmin—the highest ranked caste among Hindus in India. Naipaul’s father also claimed this distinction, though the validity of his claim is less clear. Often, due to general caste rules, Brahmins distinguish themselves from other castes by adhering to a strict vegetarian diet. All Hindus aspire to transcend this life through self-realization—halting the transmigration from one body to the next. To do so, in their daily lives they must act in accordance with the tenets of Sattva Guna (mode of goodness) laid out in the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture which includes the abstention of flesh meat.
For many Hindus who follow a lacto-vegetarian diet, the ideological reasons for not eating animals are still ever present—for others, it is merely a distinction inherited from the cultural context into which they were born. I don’t know which category Naipaul fits into. He has, to the best of my knowledge, never spoken openly about any ideological reason for his vegetarianism.
He has, however, written about his disgust at the sight of meat. What is perhaps the first mention is in his early work Between Father and Son: Family Letters. A young Naipaul received a scholarship to study at Oxford, where he found himself struggling with depression and loneliness. In a bid to bridge the distance between continents, he wrote letters to his family—a correspondence that lasted four years and ended with the death of his father. In a letter to his elder sister Kamla, dated Sept. 21, 1949, he recapitulates a distressing situation during an Old Boy’s Association dinner: “Special arrangements, I was informed after dinner, had been made for me but these appeared to have been limited to serving me potatoes in different ways—now fried, now boiled.” Turtle soup was served to the other diners; being vegetarian, Naipaul asked the manager for corn soup instead. “He ignored this and the waiter bought me a plateful of green slime. This was the turtle soup. I was nauseated and annoyed and told the man to take it away. This, I was told, was a gross breach of etiquette.”
7. Leo Tolstoy
Vegetarianism was the focal point of several of his essays and tied in with his pre-existing beliefs in the benefits of abstinence. In On Civil Disobedience, for example, Tolstoy writes, “A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.”
Tolstoy originally wrote The First Step as the foreword to The Ethics of Diet by Howard Williams. In it, Tolstoy encourages readers to practice harmlessness: “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.” He also suggests that vegetarianism is humanity’s natural state: “So strong is humanity’s aversion to all killing. But by example, by encouraging greediness, by the assertion that God has allowed it, and above all by habit, people entirely lose this natural feeling.”
He wrote extensively about violence, and in a letter to Mahatma Gandhi published later as A Letter to a Hindu, Tolstoy convinced Gandhi to use nonviolent resistance to gain independence from the British colonial rule in the Indian peninsula. In his essay “What I Believe,” Tolstoy emphasizes his conviction that we become more violent by inflicting suffering upon animals: “As long as there are slaughter houses there will always be battlefields.”
Four years after Tolstoy’s death, his private secretary Valentin Bulgakov wrote an article for London-based The Vegetarian News to celebrate Tolstoy’s “great service to the vegetarian movement” during the last 23 years of his life. The article ends like this:
I close what I have to say with the words of Leo Tolstoy himself: “Here, indeed, outwardly, are we met but inwardly we are bound to every living creature. Already are we conscious of many of the motions of the spiritual world, but others have not yet been borne in upon us. Nevertheless they come, even as the earth presently comes to see the light of the stars, which to our eyes at this moment is invisible.”
Ice—the last novel Anna Kavan wrote before she was discovered dead with a syringe in her arm and her head resting on the case in which she kept her heroin—is a gem of speculative fiction. It is uncanny, hallucinatory, apocalyptic, a book crowded with glaciers and starlight. The novel’s popularity has grown steadily since its first publication in 1967 and Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary reissue of Ice, with a fine introduction by Jonathan Lethem, gives Kavan’s valedictory effort the platform it deserves.
The plot is deceptively simple. In the aftermath of a major atomic event, a monomaniacal man searches for a fragile, silver-haired girl from his past as the vise of a new ice age clinches the planet. He searches for her through the chaotic territory of memories, dreams, and half-real war zones. At all costs, he must locate “the glass girl” before the world darkens and human life is over. In a game of cat and mouse, he sails to foreign shores on the last overcrowded ships, gleaning clues to her whereabouts, yet when he finds her—and he always manages to—she flees from him as from a tyrant. The warden of an unnamed northern country is the narrator’s erotic rival and has the power and savvy to preempt the narrator’s every move. Kavan makes ample suggestions that the two adversaries are in fact doubles, mirror-images, the Superego and Id of the author’s avowedly psychoanalytical nightmare (Kavan’s best friend and sometime creative collaborator, Karl Theodor Bluth, was a psychoanalyst who treated her depression and supplied her with legal heroin).
In addition to being a prolific writer and inveterate drug addict, Kavan was a serious painter, producing startling artworks in a series of modernist styles, from cubism and expressionism to surrealism. Her wartime traumas (she lost her only son in WWII) and confinement in asylums (much like another oft-neglected English painter and writer, Leonora Carrington) add to Ice’s strange alchemy of glittering, visionary detail and psychological dishevelment. Considering Kavan’s earlier works, such as the story collections Asylum Piece and I Am Lazarus, one can’t help but read the glass girl in Ice as, in part, a self-portrait of the protean, charismatic, and psychologically bruised author who never recovered from a childhood of maternal neglect.
The novel’s dystopian world is hermetically sealed. Geographical information is withheld and we are never quite able to get our bearings in this landscape of snow and ruins, illuminated by the ever-changing lights of the aura borealis. The glass girl slips through the pages, tantalizingly out of reach, seen through the filter of the male narrator’s objectifying, sadistic, chimerical gaze. Her hair is “bright as spun glass” and “shimmers like silver fire;” her face “cracks to pieces and tumbles into the dark;” the narrator fantasizes about “the circular marks of teeth [standing] out clearly” on her “white flesh;” he sees “the dead moon dance over the icebergs, as it would at the end of our world, while she watches from the tent of her glittering hair;” “mountainous walls of ice surround” the girl and “huge ice-battlements fill…the sky, lit from within by frigid mineral fires.” One never tires of Kavan’s poetry. She has a gift for elemental and atavistic language.
The science fiction writer Brian Aldiss has dubbed Kavan “Kafka’s sister” for good reason. Not only did she absorb and creatively imitate many of Franz Kafka’s short stories in the 1930s and 1940s, but she carried his enthusiasm for the frustrated quest, the skeptical fantasy, and the allegory without a key into her mature work. It’s hard not to see reflections of Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial in Ice. As in those novels, the mysteries of the invisible and all-powerful authorities are never penetrated or understood. Kavan even changed her name from Helen Ferguson in 1939 as a phonetic gesture to Kafka, whose own Czech surname was originally spelled “Kavka.”
Some critics read the “ice” as a metaphor for Kavan’s desperate struggle with heroin and the cold, suffocating experience of addiction. Others view the novel as a veiled autobiography of Kavan’s relationships with abusive men that eventually led to romantic abstention. Given that the narrator, the glass girl, and the warden are sometimes conflated through slippages in point of view, one could see the various character dynamics as a kind of alchemical yearning for the androgyne, for the union of psychological, emotional, and sexual opposites (a major preoccupation of surrealists like Max Ernst, whose technical innovations Kavan appropriated in her own paintings). To a certain degree, it’s useful to interpret the book as a critique of totalitarianism, the ecological crimes of the Anthropocene, or a protest against the Cold War. A few have pointed out its proto-feminist verve, though the satire of patriarchal thought-control is never entirely satisfying or aboveboard, as it is, say, in the works of her contemporaries Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Kavan’s first critic, Brian Aldiss, saw Ice as a pure science fiction novel. Faced with such a multidimensional work, the reviewer is happy to allow all these interpretative planes to coexist.
Even 50 years after its publication, this is still a relevant book. It’s not perfect. The author, after all, was in and out of the hospital during the process of composition and her editor, Peter Lang, demanded dramatic revisions before agreeing to publish the novel (characterized by one manuscript reader as a “mixture of Kafka and the Avengers,” a description Kavan found delightful). The narrative repetition of chase and escape can be tiresome and the prose can occasionally slip from its usual sterling quality. Nevertheless, Ice is ambitious, unforgettable, and one of a kind. It demands to be experienced. During a time of environmental crisis, when totalitarian-inflected administrations are brazenly withdrawing from climate accords, when ice caps are melting and the world’s magnificent glaciers are disappearing, Ice provides a photographic negative of the present moment—a world overshadowed by atomic threat and nearly devoid of ice.
I had a simple plan: to peruse a novella repeatedly and in different settings, an experiment in reading during which I would surrender myself to what Edgar Allen Poe called that “fullness of [the author’s] intention” best experienced in a “brief tale.” All I needed was the right book: familiar yet strange enough to offer surprises during the third, fourth, and fifth readings, all within days of each other.
I had been casting about for the perfect title when I saw Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of The Metamorphosis at an airport bookstore, the beautiful cover submitting the title letters to the same transformative process as the book’s protagonist undergoes. This, I decided, would be my companion text as I semi-reclined on a plane, lay in bed, sat in a café, strolled upright in a park, and bellied up to a bar.
That The Metamorphosis is manifestly about change appealed to me for a project about repetition, though I had no expectation that reading it repeatedly would effect any such dramatic metamorphoses either in me or my literary judgment. Nor did it. Rather, this is a record of the adaptation of a reader’s focus to his different environments.
Gregor Samsa, whose “particular zeal” allowed him to rise “almost overnight from petty clerk to salesman,” awakens after “troubled dreams” to find himself transformed into “some sort of monstrous insect.” Gregor’s more immediate concern is that he has slept through his alarm and missed his train. (What one chooses to worry about in Kafka is always telling.) Having the misfortune to work in a “firm where even the most negligible falling short was enough to arouse the greatest possible suspicion,” Gregor is visited by his incensed supervisor, whose immediate arrival is in a way no less far-fetched than Gregor’s metamorphosis.
The family accustoms itself to Gregor’s transformation. His sister Grete, whether from “childish frivolity” or jealous protectiveness, takes over the caretaking duties. Each Samsa returns to work to relieve the family of the “ancient debt” incurred by their father.
Meanwhile, Gregor slowly wastes away, eating and sleeping less and less, his movement hampered by an apple that his irate father had hurled at him and is now lodged in his back. Household staff quit, a charwoman and three eerie, bearded lodgers arrive — a new, financially necessary infestation. A final confrontation convinces the family that Gregor must go, a mandate to which Gregor eventually submits when he obligingly expires. Relieved and empowered, the Samsas expel the apartment’s intruders and take the day off work to go on an outing: the first time the novella strays from the apartment. Gregor’s, sister, her parents notice, has blossomed into a young woman.
Kafka at 35,000 Feet:
I started my experiment on board a Boeing 767. This setting seemed particularly fitting as nothing in modern life makes one feel quite as verminous as air travel: the cramped confines, the mixture of docility and entitlement, the accrued filth of travel, and food scarcely fresher than the rotten offerings supplied to Gregor daily.
I had sacrificed the aisle seat to my wife and slunk into the middle seat, then cravenly ceded the armrest to the stranger on my right, as this was certainly what Gregor, a creature of excessive considerateness (some might say servility) would have done. Thus hemmed in, I waited for the plane to reach cruising altitude before reacquainting myself with Gregor’s plight.
Gregor, I noticed, gets into the most trouble when he puts himself on display. Gazing longingly at the dividing curtain in the aisle, I was tempted to imitate one of Gregor’s ill-advised, visible breakouts and display myself — in my full, coach-stinking monstrosity — to the first class passengers. I was moved by the same resentment Gregor felt toward the lodgers and imagined myself making a similar complaint: “Just look at how these [passengers] take their nourishment while I was wasting away.” Alas, I stayed seated, merely contenting myself with visualizing the back of my seat as its own “carapace” that would defend me from the repeated kicks from the child behind me.
As I was in a good position to appreciate, The Metamorphosis dramatizes a fight for and division of a limited space: how much space one takes up, how much one cedes, how much one feels entitled to, and how quickly, and in what manner, one navigates that space — aged bipeds and many-legged bugs alike have trouble getting around. Before the transformation, Gregor is a creature familiar with tight spaces, spending his salesman days on the road in “cramped hotel rooms” and at home in his “proper human room, if admittedly too small.” (Asides like this last one reveal the peculiar mixture of self-denial and resentment in Gregor.) Once he becomes an insect, his room affords him only a “few square meters of space” over which to crawl, and so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of his sister, he takes to squeezing himself under a settee, “where even though his back was a bit cramped and he could no longer raise his head, he at once felt right at home…”
Some flashes of rebellion and resentment notwithstanding, the generally pliant Gregor accepts his straitened quarters even as his family comes to suspect him of new territorial ambitions: “But now we have this beast tormenting us; it drives away our lodgers and apparently intends to take over the entire apartment and have us sleep in the gutter.” When, late in the novella, Gregor is drawn into the “immaculate” parlor by his sister’s violin playing, it is the last violation of the domestic space he is permitted. He dies that night, and his sister finally notices how little space he actually took up: “Just look how skinny he was.” This moment of pathos quickly gives way to irony, as the Samsas, rid of their desiccated charge, look forward to relocating to a “smaller…more practical flat” over which they will have complete dominion.
Outraged on Gregror’s behalf, I reclaimed the armrest in a small act of solidarity, clinging to it as zealously as the beleaguered beetle clings to his cherished picture frame when Grete and her mother attempt to remove it from his walls.
Kafka after Dark:
I adopted a more Proustian posture for my second reading. After all, Gregor’s metamorphosis starts in bed with his “supine imaginings.” Startled and only half awake, he examines “his curved brown belly segmented by rigid arches atop which the blanket, already slipping, was just barely managing to cling.” Clutching my own sheet, I saw in that heroic blanket the whole drama: Gregor’s own doomed quest to cling to a human past. Gregor will later drag his own sheet to cover himself — a painstaking labor that “cost him four hours” and speaks to the all-too human shame that remains with Gregor in his beastly form.
After the initial uncovering of Gregor’s monstrous body, it would take a spreadsheet to keep track of the Samsas’ various states of (un)dress. Gregor assumes that his sister is absent the first morning because “she must have just gotten out of bed and not yet begun to dress.” The first time she does visit him in his room, she is “almost completely clothed.” His father could previously be found “sitting in an armchair in his nightshirt,” but now he wears a “smart blue uniform with gold buttons” at all times, a uniform which eventually becomes as soiled as Gregor’s filthy shell. Gregor fixates on his mother’s “unfastened skirts slipping one by one from her waist” as she hurries to stop his father from killing Gregor with the apple assault. She has taken a job in a dress show, “sacrific[ing] herself for the underclothes of strangers.”
As for Gregor, his most beloved possession is a framed magazine ad picturing a lady “in a fur hat and fur boa who sat erect, holding out to the viewer a heavy fur muff in which her entire forearm had vanished.” His former romantic interest is a girl who worked, naturally, in a haberdashery. And in Gregor’s charged fantasy about his sister, he pictures her visiting his room, and kissing “her throat, which, now that she went to the office every day, she wore free of ribbon or collar.”
There are erotic or Oedipal explanations for the novella’s obsession with clothes, but it is also elegiac. Why wouldn’t Gregor, who can now only outfit himself with a thick layer of dust, pay particular attention to the more refined coverings of the humans around him?
It was getting late, and as Gregor remarks before he ceases slumber altogether, “Human being need their sleep.” I’ll leave my bedroom attire to the reader’s imagination and simply note that after turning off the light, I swaddled myself particularly tightly in my blanket that night.
Kafka at a Cafe:
Given Prague’s robust café culture, reading The Metamorphosis at a coffee shop seemed de rigeur. Before my coffee had time to cool, I reached the passage in which Gregor shows himself for the first time to his mother, father, and the general manager. Frau Samsa backs up into the table and knocks over the coffeepot, prompting the first instinctual reaction Gregor experiences in his new form:
“Mother, Mother,” Gregor said softly, gazing up at her. For a moment he had forgotten all about the general manager; on the other hand, he could not restrain himself, when he beheld this flowing coffee, from snapping his jaws several times. At this, the mother gave another shriek and fled from the table into the arms of Gregor’s father as he rushed to her aid.
The father proceeds to “aid” Gregor by giving him a “liberating shove” through the too-narrow bedroom door, scraping his sides and mangling a few of his legs. As the narrator rationalizes: “And of course in his father’s current state it could not possibly have occurred to him to open the door’s other wing to create an adequate passage.” Of course: the father’s “current state,” in which he is “uttering hisses like a wild man,” logically prevents him from taking into account his son’s. Instinct and logic are consistently at odds in the novella. Gregor is a creature who can’t control his jaws from grotesquely snapping at the sight (or scent) of coffee, yet who in a later scene will ignore his instincts by deeming it unsportsmanlike to escape from his father’s wrath by crawling on the walls and ceiling. He is rewarded for his consideration with a debilitating injury.
The Metamorphosis is full of confident logical statements that butt up against the profound illogicality of the novella’s conceit. My favorite is Grete’s reaction when she doesn’t immediately see Gregor in his room: “…well, goodness, he had to be somewhere, it’s not as if he might have flown away…” Why, pray tell, not? He has, after all, just turned into a giant bug. (Nabokov is convinced that Gregor does actually have wings, and thus could have flown away.)
It is no wonder then that the family’s final judgment on Gregor takes the form of a logical pronouncement: “If it were Gregor, it would have realized a long time ago that it just isn’t possible for human beings to live beside such a creature, and it would have gone away on its own.” Of course.
Kafka in the Park:
The airplane, bed, and even the tightly packed café had replicated the cramped nature of the Samsa apartment. It was time for some open space. The sun was shining for the first time in months, and I had a bench to myself in a gorgeous park with a view much better than Gregor’s, which looked out on “a desert in which the gray sky and the gray earth were indistinguishably conjoined.” I had read the novella three times now, so I decided this time to carry out an outdoor-friendly exegetical exercise and think up alternate titles for the novella. (In a perfect world, all English essay prompts about free will, fate, nature, and nurture should be replaced with one: Re-title the book in question and justify your response.)
Good Intentions: The novella is full of good intentions that backfire and those that can’t always be expressed. Each time he escapes from his room, the agonizingly slow Gregor only survives by signaling his “good intentions” to his father that he is trying to return as quickly as he can. Each failure of empathy or understanding is recalled in the perfectly insensitive and deliciously ironic last line “…it seemed to [the Samsas] almost a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when their daughter swiftly sprang to her feet and stretched her young body.”
Whimsical Extravagances: A phrase used in the beginning of the novella by the general manager in reference to Gregor’s absence from work. Unlike his fellow salesmen who live “like harem girls,” Gregor leads an ascetic, dutiful existence and has the “cautious habit” of locking his bedroom door at night. He has no friends to speak of and his romantic life consists of a glossy picture of a model. And yet, perhaps in Gregor’s sporadic and orgiastic fits of crawling, in the pleasure he takes in feeling the cool glass of his beloved picture frame against his belly, the clerk sensed something whimsically extravagant about the dull salesman after all.
New Entertainments: Noticing Gregor’s “peregrinations” and the “sticky trails they leave behind,” Grete takes note of her brother’s “new entertainments.” While there is plenty of abject moping in the novella, there is also a pronounced appetite for fun. Gregor diverts himself with the “novelty of crawling” and by “playfully” taking bites of the food he seldom eats. He enjoys rummaging through the mess in his room with “ever-increasing” pleasure, even if these flights are followed by a sense of shame. The charwoman is clearly intrigued by, even fond of, her charge, and upon first seeing Gregor, the lodgers find him more entertaining than Grete’s mediocre violin playing. Even Gregor’s father adopts a tone both “furious” and “glad” upon steeling himself to punish Gregor for the first time. The metamorphosis has thus provided everyone in the household with new sadistic, voyeuristic, and freakish entertainments.
Pride Before the Fall: Coffee pots spill, violins drop, Gregor plummets from the bed and ceiling, man descends the evolutionary ladder, and apples rain down from on high.
And several more jottings to ponder on a nice afternoon in the park: Creatures of Habit; Special Accommodations; Social Mobility; The Doors; Exaggerated Deference; Gregor and the Women; Ancient Debts; Conditional Love.
Kafka at a Bar:
The celebratory fifth and final reading. Thinking it too pretentious to read Kafka at the bar, I secured a seat on an outside deck and made my way through one novella and a few IPAs. Given my earlier concerns, I was surprised to find myself sitting next to two patrons debating a Slavoj Žižek essay from a collection entitled Deconstructing Zionism. Had I woken up from troubled dreams to find myself transformed once again into a graduate student?
After about 40 pages, the sun and the seven percent beer took its toll. The conversations taking place around me made it even more difficult to focus. Various entertaining topics were discussed: the ethics of a 24-year-old playing on a 30-and-over softball team, Southerners’ inability to drive in the snow, and overhead bin etiquette. In the snippet that made me lose all hope of continuing my engagement with The Metamorphosis, a man referred to a reviled co-worker as an “ass barnacle,” thereby trumping Kafka’s relatively tame takedown of the general manager as a “creature devoid of backbone and wit.”
Well, I reasoned, eavesdropping happens to be a central part of the novella, and indeed of Kafka’s oeuvre, so why not go with it? As a snooping peasant tells K. in The Castle, “There’s always something new to listen to.” There is a usually a sinister aspect to Kafkaesque eavesdropping, but in The Metamorphosis, it stems from Gregor’s yearning to “be drawn once more into the circle of humankind.” Instead he gets “tolerance, only tolerance.” The Samsas do permit their son to listen in on their dull domestic scenes at night through a slightly open door, but he is told in no uncertain terms to disappear when he attempts to actually rejoin the circle. The last thing Gregor ever hears is his sister’s exasperated “Finally!” as she impatiently watches him return to his room for the last time. Nevertheless, while dying he thinks back on his family with “nothing but tenderness and love,” the grotesque proceedings and rough handling having done little to affect his thirst for human company.
I went to walk off my buzz, giving free rein to a drunken mawkishness about Gregor’s goodness, an assessment of his character challenged forcefully in Bernofsky’s afterword:
…Gregor’s new physical state appears as a representation of his long-standing spiritual abjectness. Finally Gregor has only himself to blame for the wretchedness of his situation, since he has unwillingly accepted wretchedness as it was thrust upon him…Gregor Samsa, giant bug, is a cartoon of the subaltern, a human being turned inside out. He has traded in his spine for an exoskeleton…Gregor is a salesman, but what he’s sold is himself: his own agency and dignity, making him a sellout through and through.
Seduced by the seeming clarity of the allegory, Bernofsky is too hard on Gregor, who is guilty, just as Joseph K. and most of Kafka’s anti-heroes are guilty. But Kafka’s allegories are more opaque; Gregor and K. are also perfectly innocent and, crucially, the actions of those around them are manifestly more despicable. To quote the decidedly pro-Gregor Nabokov: “Here is a point to be observed with care and love. Gregor is a human being in an insect’s disguise; his family are insects disguised as people.”
Re-readers, I’m convinced, are more judgmental than first-time readers, but on my fifth and buzzed reading, I had never felt more fondly about Gregor — a fussy, abject saint, but a saint nonetheless. Perhaps I would have revised this view had I gone through with a sixth reading, “Kafka with a Hangover,” but to echo one of the alternate titles, that would have seemed like a “whimsical extravagance.”
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review of Books, among others.I must begin this with a caveat. As a judge of Three Percent/Open Letter’s translation of the year award, I’m going to be reading some 15 books over the next month. Undoubtedly, some of these books will be among the best books I’ve read this year, so this list will be necessarily lacking some excellent titles. But here are the best books I’ve read in the first 11 months of this year.I started off the year with Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, one of the greatest and most lasting books to come out of the 18th century. It’s an often hilarious, sometimes ribald account of a young, impoverished orphan who falls in love with a woman far above his station. For about 800 pages their love is thwarted by the young lady’s father, and I’m sure everyone can guess the end. Besides being an indispensable step on the novel’s path from the epic to what we would recognize today as “normal” realist fiction, it’s a thoroughly engrossing tale that’s plain fun to read. Fielding’s flowing sentences and sharp irony know no boundaries of time.I can best express my admiration for The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares by saying that I’ve already convinced roughly 20 people (that I’m aware of) to read this book. It’s rare that I evangelize this energetically for a novel, but Morel is the kind of book I want to share. For more about it and Bioy, aka Borges’s best friend, protege, and collaborator, read my essay from The Quarterly Conversation.For a long time Gunter Grass was a large gap in my reading, but now he is one that I have successfully filled – with his mammoth novel The Tin Drum. I can best sum up this book by saying that it is a family saga that I think could only have been written during the 20th century. It is the story of a 29-year-old man who has somehow constrained his growth to the proportions and form of a 3-year-old boy, and he tells the story of his family from his padded room in an asylum in which he drums lucrative, award-winning musical recordings on, what else, his tin drum. Anyone who thinks they know the definition of the word imagination should read The Tin Drum, because they really don’t know what the word means until they see some of the things Grass comes up with in this novel.I really don’t understand why Manuel Puig is not more famous than he is. He’s easily one of the giants of 20th-century Latin American fiction, and his novels are both plotty enough to entertain and deep enough to argue over. Many consider Kiss of the Spiderwoman his masterwork. Anyone wanting to finally find out about one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite novelists, a man who somehow managed to interrogate Lacan’s theories of the mind, homosexuality, feminism, and gender relations via engrossing plots, should start with this novel.Ford Madox Ford is my new favorite neglected author. On the power of his two best novels, he is easily one of the greats of the 20th century, yet few of his 80-some books are available today and he is not often read. It’s too bad. Ford was the founder of The Transatlantic Review, a legendary literary journal that’s partly responsible for Ernest Hemingway’s career. He’s also the author of at least two books that should stand with the greatest novels of the century. The Good Soldier reads like a Kazuo Ishiguro book written by James Joyce. For my money, it’s the best unreliable narrator novel I’ve ever read. Parade’s End is a different beast: a mammoth novel of Britain during World War I that partially looks backward to The Good Soldier but partially looks forward to modernist innovations a la Virginia Woolf.Along with Gunter Grass, Thomas Mann was another major gap in my reading (Death in Venice doesn’t count). I got interested in Doctor Faustus, Mann’s saga of the classical composer Adrian Leverkuhn, when the music critic Alex Ross declared it his favorite book on classical music. Why would someone such as Ross label a work of fiction the best book ever on classical music? The answer is that Mann’s book can teach you at least as much about serial composition and classical music aesthetics as it can about why Germany fell prey to Nazism, the Faust legend, and Adorno’s thoughts on literary theory. Which is to say, a lot. Faustus is a very rigorous read, but it is an incredibly rewarding one, a book that simply shows no weakness whatsoever and sets very high standard. I’m quite tempted to say that out of everything I read this year, this one book stands above them all.Quick, name 5 famous authors from Central America. Okay, name one. For those who had trouble answering, you should find out about Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel Senselessness. The book is a paranoid, dirty, somewhat pornographic rant by an unbalanced man who has been tricked into the politically controversial and somewhat dangerous job of editing a 1,400-page report on atrocities that occurred during Guatemala’s civil war. (The report is real, and people did die to create it.) But even if Moya had written about a perfectly sedate gentleman who did the laundry, I still think I’d read it, as he writes the best first-person, run-on sentences this side of Carlos Fuentes.Another noteworthy Latino, recommended to me by Moya’s English-language translator, is the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, whose novel The Lost Steps I enjoyed this year. The novel is something of a modernist search for the great Amazon/Latin American foundational myth, a 300-page Conradian journey from New York City to the farthest reaches of the Amazon river basin. At many points, Carpentier’s descriptions of Latin American cities and natural landscapes are simply awesome – they actually make me feel like I’m back there again.There are also a few greats that I would be remiss in not mentioning, but that hardly need me to introduce them to you. So, instead of begging you to bathe in their glory, I’ll simply list them here and note that they are as good as you’ve been told. They are: 2666 by Roberto Bolano, Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, The Castle by Franz Kafka, The Red and the Black by Stendhal, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.More from A Year in Reading 2008
As a term of approbation, “precious” has lost its currency. These days, the p-word puts us in mind less of rare gems than of independent films about quirky white people. But as A.O. Scott’s recent review of The Darjeeling Limited reminds us, we needn’t choose between precious and precious. In the movies of Wes Anderson, the boxes of Joseph Cornell, and now, in Jesse Ball’s unabashedly imaginative debut novel, the two senses of the word collide.The set-up is pure Hitchcock: a (seeming) bystander, James Sim by name, witnesses an act of political murder that draws him into a web of intrigue (or, as my friend Colin’s dad liked to put it, “a tissue of lies.”) Confined to an asylum for compulsive prevaricators, Sim must ferret out the truth. Ball has followed Murakami, however, in replacing the traditional terms of the suspense novel with his own cryptic obsessions. It soon becomes apparent that Samedi the Deafness is less an epistemological mystery than an existential one. The important question for is not whodunit, but “Why am I here?”The pursuit of an answer proves to be highly entertaining, thanks in large part to Ball’s untrammeled idiosyncracies. This 28-year-old debut novelist is also a poet and an illustrator, and his prose, in Samedi the Deafness, leavens flights of hallucinatory vision with the arch diction and mannered dialogue of mid-twentieth-century British children’s novels. (The bad guys are always saying things like, “For this reason…”) At its weakest, the novel struggles to sustain its tone; the juvenile elements decay from wonder into whimsy, the poetic ones start to feel strained. At its best, the tongue-in-cheek and the earnest harmonize to produce a vivid and dreamlike whimsy, as in this flashback to James Sim’s formative years:”The best hiding place of all, said James’s friend Ansilon, from his perch atop James’s shoulder, is inside something hollow when no one knows it’s hollow. Ansilon was James’s one friend. He was an invisible owl who could tell the future and also speak English, although he preferred to speak in the owl language, which James understood perfectly. -But if no one knows that it’s hollow, said James, then how would I manage to know that it’s hollow? Should I just go around with a little hammer, tapping things?”Ball has pronounced The Castle one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, and this literary debt is obvious. Like Kafka’s K., Ball’s protagonist is a patient and bemused Everyman. His character emerges not in his actions, but in his reactions, and despite his unusual gifts (a near-photographic memory, for example), James Sim is a democratic figure; he could be any one of us. Ball is less successful at creating a supporting cast. Where the inhabitants of Kafka’s village are both madcap and mysteriously human, the denizens of Ball’s asylum often seem a mere accumulation of tics. Their setting redeems them, however. With its labyrinthine architecture and wonderfully arbitrary list of rules, the asylum itself becomes a character, and a worthy foil for our hero.In the end, the delights of Samedi the Deafness outweigh its flaws. Ball’s sensibility is, despite his many influences, entirely his own, and one can expect good things to come. (Another novel, The Way Through Doors, will be published in 2008). At a speedy 280 pages, Samedi is a welcome appetizer to what one hopes will be a rich and – dare we say it? – precious career.
As anyone who keeps up with world financial markets surely knows, the People’s Republic of China is booming. After the quashing of the Chinese democracy movement in Tienanmen Square in 1989, Deng Xiaoping did an about-face and introduced capitalism as a panacea for the woes of his country. Echoing the call “to get rich is glorious,” many old-guard communist institutions were abandoned in favor of quasi-free market ventures, and the result was a China on the make, full of hustlers and schemers, anxious to make a buck. Crooked politicians became crooked entrepreneurs, and the pursuit of wealth became not just the means to an end that Deng Xiaoping had envisioned, but an end in itself. The Chinese literary scene caught on quickly, selling out its ideological foundations for the cheap fix of fast money, and a national literature of the explicit was born, with even writers whose writing had once been pillars of the democracy movement turning their efforts to the salacious and titillating, whatever would sell. It was in this milieu that Zhu Wen, whose stories are collected in the recently released anthology I Love Dollars, made his literary debut.Modern China, as captured by Wen, is a Kafkaesque horror. The parallels to Kafka’s work are uncanny: the endless bureaucracy, arbitrary nature of decision making, the crushing closeness of others, ambivalence to – almost reflexive fear of – sex, all coming together to make even the smallest task a trial of epic difficulty. Kafka’s preoccupations seem a perfect fit for China, and Wen manages to capture all of the loathing, and paradoxically – and much to my great relief – all of the bleak humor of Kafka’s best work.The title story, which follows the antics of a father and son as they scour a nameless factory town looking for the narrator’s younger brother, is a send up/satire of the go-go China of the 1990s. Much like Kafka’s The Castle, the story documents the endless circular pursuit of a goal, which, when finally attained, proves meaningless. The unnamed narrator possesses an almost Portnoy-like obsession with sex. (Philip Roth once when asked if he had been influenced by the stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, replied, no, he had been influenced by a sit-down comedian, Franz Kafka.) He views every interaction from the perspective of getting laid, and his search for his brother is repeatedly waylaid by his sexual proclivities. The humor that arises from this obsession tempers Wen’s insinuation that China has traded the good of the Democracy movement for something vulgar. When the narrator insists that his father abandon their search for the brother to find some girls, his father refuses, leading him to note, “In [my father’s] day libido wasn’t called libido, it was called idealism.” Later, in a discussion of his second favorite topic, money, he declaims, “We’ve all got things we can learn from [Western money]… From its straight-up, honest-to-goodness, absolute value[s].”As the stories unfold, Kafka’s influence becomes increasingly pronounced. The second story, “A Hospital Night,” and the third story “A Boat Crossing” both transform Kafka’s familiar themes into exquisite commentaries on life in modern China. They’re built on an atmosphere of gloom, paranoia and general malaise, so complete and effective it is at times literally chilling. And yet, the bleakness is so absolute, it inevitably becomes ridiculous, as in “A Hospital Night” when the narrator is dragooned into taking care of an elderly man he barely knows and whom despises him. The ensuing power struggle, waged over the elderly man’s indignation at being tended to by a stranger and the narrator’s need to empty his bed pan, could be taken directly from the pages of Amerika, and will surely elicit snorts and belly laughs from anyone with an appreciation for dark humor. “A Boat Crossing,” while also amusing in its way draws a darker picture of life, where a man, escaping from a nameless fear, learns that sometimes the things that seem the least threatening can be the most dangerous.”Wheels” and “Pounds, Ounces, Meat” follow in the same vein. The first details an endless series of confrontations between a man and the pseudo-gangsters who are determined to make him pay their grandfather’s hospital bills, and the latter follows a couple as their attempts to prove they’ve been cheated by a butcher cascade into a series of antic misadventures. “Ah, Xiao Xie” provides an interesting twist on the Kafka story, observing a Kafkaesque protagonist, a man struggling to quit his job at a power plant, from the viewpoint of a rational observer. As with so many of Kafka’s characters, Xiao Xie’s motives are completely inscrutable and defy all conventional logic, boggling the mind of the narrator, much as Kafka’s endless variations on himself confound his readers. Eventually, Xiao Xie’s struggle with the nearly indomitable will of his employers, who refuse to let him resign, undergoes a hilarious reversal. After Xiao Xie ruins his health with one of his schemes, his employers try to fire him, while he desperately clings to his job, terrified of losing his health insurance.It’s difficult to say whether Wen writes from a love of Kafka or a more organic identification with the themes of his work. Although Kafka’s portrait hangs in Wen’s office, many historical accounts of communist rule in China seem readymade for Kafka themselves. Many of Chairman Mao’s initiatives summon forth images worthy of The Trial or The Castle, and the bizarre amalgamation of capitalist freedoms and communist tyranny seems a recipe for the confrontations between the self and the faceless bureaucracies that form the basis of so much of his work. The Chinese legalist tradition, harking back to the sixth century BC, also provides another point of similarity. The legalist’s obsession with honoring the letter of the law over its spirit, reflected in the practice, if not necessarily the philosophy, of Chinese communism (not often noted, but to my mind indisputable), mirrors the unbending rules of the Talmud, with which Kafka expressed a deep fascination. Wen’s work suggests that this combination of Jewish legalism and Germanic bureaucratic organization that Kafka experienced as an antagonistic force during his life in Bohemia has found itself reborn in a bizarro Chinese form. It might be hell to live through, but it makes for a fantastic read.
Let’s say you’re slightly to the left of the Bell Curve: you read, on average, a book a week. And let’s say you’re also slightly leftward-listing in your survival prospects: that, due to the marvels of future medicine (and no thanks to the blunders of contemporary foreign policy) you’ll live to the fine old age of 90. Let’s furthermore presuppose that you’re one of those people, the precocious ones who were reading Kesey and King and Kingsolver and Kipling at 15. How many great books will you get to read in a lifetime? Assuming you’ve already answered the adjunct question (why?) for yourself, the prospect of having to choose only three thousand books from among the many Millions may sound daunting. My Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Literature contains some entries on authors alone, and is hardly comprehensive. Balzac alone could eat up almost one percent of your lifetime reading. On the other hand, as usual, limitation shades into wonder… because in an infinite reading universe, we would be deprived of one of the supreme literary pleasures: discovery. Half of my favorite works of fiction of the year were by authors (women, natch) I’d never read, had barely heard of: Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place, Lynne Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy, and Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica.And if I had gone my whole life without discovering Deborah Eisenberg, I would have missed something like a literary soulmate. The beguiling, bewildered quality of Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes – the sentences whose endings seem to surprise even their writer – is so close to the texture of life as I experience it as to be almost hallucinatory. On the other hand, Eisenberg’s world is much, much funnier and more profound than mine. She’s single-handedly rejuvenated my relationship with the short story… and just in time for the remarkable new Edward P. Jones collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. I’ve already expressed my suspicion that Jones has been a positive influence on Dave Eggers, as evidenced by What is the What. So I’ll just round out my survey of new fiction by mentioning Marshall N. Klimasewiski’s overlooked first novel, The Cottagers – a dazzlingly written thriller.In between forays into the contemporary landscape, I’ve been trying to bone up on the classics. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice until this year; it’s about the most romantic damn thing I’ve ever encountered, and I’m a sucker for romance. Pricklier and more ironic, which is to say more Teutonic, was Mann’s The Magic Mountain – a great book for when you’ve got nothing to do for two months. Saul Bellow’s Herzog completely blew my doors off, suggesting that stream-of-consciousness (and the perfect evocation of a summer day) did not end with Mrs. Dalloway. Herzog is such a wonderful book, so sad, so funny, so New York. So real. I can’t say the same thing about Kafka’s The Castle, but it is to my mind the most appealing of his novels. As in The Magic Mountain, futility comes to seem almost charming. E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate was another wonderful discovery – a rip-roaring read that’s written under some kind of divine inspiration: Let there be Comma Splices! Similarly, I was surprised by how well page-turning pacing and peel-slowly sentences worked in Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Ultimately, it’s sort of a ridiculous story, but it’s hard to begrudge something this rich and addictive. Think of it as a dessert. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rip-roar of that most sweeping of summer beach books, Lonesome Dove. And if the last three titles make you feel self-indulgent, because you’re having too much fun, cleanse the palate the way I did, with the grim and depressing and still somehow beautiful. Namely, Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing or W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. (What is it with those Germans?)Nonfiction-wise, I managed to slip away from journalism a bit, but did read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men while I was in Honduras… sort of like reading Melville at sea. I made it most of the way through Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (God knows why, half of me adds. The other half insists, You know why.) Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment lightened things up… Not! But I will never read Cosmo Girl the same way again. Come to think of it, pretty much all the nonfiction I loved this year was a downer, about the impure things we can’t get away from: Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, and especially the late George W.S. Trow’s astonishing, devastating Within the Context of No Context. Lit-crit offered a little bit of a silver lining, as William H. Gass’ A Temple of Text and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self. Wood’s essays on Tolstoy and Bellow remind me that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”… which is, I guess, why I’ll keep reading in 2007.