Category Archives: kafka

What Happens When You Play Suburban Malaise Too Close — AM Homes and Music for Torching

One wants to like Music for Torching by AM Homes, a book that I read at the insistence of some people after asking for recommendations of worthwhile English-language authors. Suburban decay is a lovely theme for a novel by an American about America, and Homes' first chapter is worth the big deal everyone's made about it. (Briefly: an ungrateful, completely unhappy suburban couple with two young boys attempts to burn down their house. It only partly succeeds. Novel goes from there.) Yet I never fully felt that this novel had captured my interest.

Homes writes with a minimalism and casual nastiness somewhat reminiscent of Raymond Carver. Everything in the world of Music for Torching is carefully hewn to fit into a certain aesthetic that might be labeled "Ugly American." Here, young boys don't give each other Indian burns–instead one pisses on another; rebellious teens don't stop at piercings–one gets a disgusting little set of barbells implanted beneath the skin of his forehead. So on. Each character–from the too-good-to-believe neighbors to the shop girl at the mall–is her own little ball of reflexive irony and quiet aggression. One admires Homes' discipline and her fortitude, that she can bow everything in this vision of suburban life to the same shrieking tone.

That said, the attempted transgressions in this book feel empty; despite many ugly details, this portrait of hell in America lacks any sort of real power. It's interesting to note that whereas the book as a whole feels insubstantial, the first chapter, in which the house is torched, does pack a punch. The reason the burning house registers is not because it is transgressive but because it is well-built fiction. But then Homes' storytelling abilities start to flag. After the fire we get a parade of arguably worse transgressions that fail to register at all: high-level drug use; lesbians with strap-ons; genital tattoos; crossdressing; obese woman porn; and the final transgression, the one at the very end of the book, that I won't reveal here.

I'm willing to believe that this flatness is purposeful. (What's closer to hell: a world where transgressions can still shock, or where they've lost the power?) Yet a world that only wants to show us a place where transgression no longer registers doesn't have much to tell us. This is another way of saying the Music for Torching lacks good development after the initial setup.

That, combined with the fact that these transgressions all feel so empty, makes Homes' book a little dull. The characters have nowhere to go; really, that's their problem, that whatever they try to do they essentially can't jolt themselves out of their horrible life. Fair enough, but then why should we care about these people or their predicaments? What power, or what authority, can their story claim?

I suppose that in the end Music for Torching simply fails to offer anything that feels truly new or necessary. It is a nice read that jets right along, but I rarely felt that it distinguished itself. This might be usefully compared with Raymond Carver, who also wrote about dreary-but-banal circumstances, and who used a far more pared-down prose than Homes, yet who managed to give his stories his indelible stamp, to make them feel both original and necessary.

I think Kafka also can be usefully compared to what Homes attempts here. Kafka's work instilled a sensation of complete ineffectiveness on the part of the protagonist while also instilling a great sense of pity (at the protagonist) and disgust (at the world he inhabited) into the reader. At the same time it is a continual thrill to watch Kakfa elaborate his world, seeming to go off at his own caprice yet maintain it all into his world's strict order. At times Homes' book begins to create this kind of effect, but the effect is not sustained. More often the feeling is that of watching a cartoon where the same or similar things keep happening over and over again.

In Homes' favor, she can write and she can plot. The book never lags and Homes generally gets across what she wants to get across in good, economical prose, on even even say muscular. The world the novel takes place in is fairly compelling, and the concept behind the novel is very interesting. The book might very well have worked, but in my reading it didn't quite. It was just good enough that I'd read another Homes novel if someone I trusted recommended another book of hers very strongly, but this seems more like first-novel territory than fifth.

Anthologies Are Kafka’s Spot in Publishing

JC Hallman is still blogging up a storm about his book over at the Tin House blog. (And, for about the 18th time, we've published an adapted version of his intro to the book that I think everyone should check out.)

Hallman has stopped poking the ribs of the academic community on the Tin House blog and is now discussing the nightmare that is trying to publish a profitable anthology.

The problem with The Story About the Story was multi-fold. When we write about reading, we want to cite things, to use examples—these become permissions issues, too. Furthermore, for an anthology like this to have any chance at succeeding, it needs to have the possibility of getting to foreign markets, at least the UK (a number of the writers in The Story About the Story are British—from Woolf and Wilde to De Botton and Dyer). This meant that each essay actually wound up requiring multiple permissions. The prize for most went to Edward Hirsch. The short selection from How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry required two permissions for the text itself (US and UK), two permissions for the Plath poem it explicates, and a permission for a few lines from poet Miklós Radnóti.

Five permissions for one essay. The average permission for The Story About the Story was $150.00 Thirty-one essays in the book.

The budget was $3500.00.

Yeah, anthologies are tough. If you read the post, there's a (frankly) insane story where Hallman had to convince Random House UK that they actually did own the rights to an essay he was trying to reprint (which after Hallman finally convinced them they really did own tried to charge him $6,000 for).

Although, for all the trouble Hallman went through, I feel like it was worth it. I am pretty eager to see my copy of this book, mostly because I haven't read a lot of the criticism collected therein, but the pieces that I have read make me want to read the ones I haven't.

Re-Thinking The Trial

Lots of interesting thoughts on The Trial by Frank Kafka at this post of Andrew’s.

This one in particular struck me:

And while The Trial has never, I think, been read in these terms of indomitable human wills, etc., what I do think is the case is that Kafka’s writings have been homogenized (so that the tone of some of the stories is taken to be Kafka’s only tone) and that the product of that homogenization was employed as the necessary complement of the project to restore the human will: reading Kafka supplied the gaze into the abyss which allows the will to know what it’s up against. Kafka, I feel, was drafted into the “crisis of man” discourse just as much as Hemingway or Faulkner, only he wasn’t around to help with his re-interpretation and reformation.

What I’d like to argue is that passage through this reconstruction project has made certain readings of modernist works much more difficult or much less likely and has in fact flattened a great deal of the variety and, I would say, personality out of many modernist writers.

I have to agree. As to why this is, I’m not 100% sure, although my first thought would be that these books are more often discussed than read.

Kobo Abe Is Pretty Great, So Far

Woman-in-the-dunes If you know Kobo Abe, it's probably as the guy who wrote the book that became the movie about a Japanese businessman trapped into a giant hole in the desert, where he is forced to shovel sand and eventually comes to see his prison as his home.

I watched The Woman in the Dunes not too long ago, and now I've gotten on an Abe kick. I'm currently working through The Broken Map, which shares a lot of themes with Dunes: a pervasive sense of futility; the almost imperceptibly gradual but profound transformation of identity; a Kafkaesque ability to generate the binding rules of its universe as the story unfolds.

I'm hungry for more, and next up is what appears to be a truly strange work: The Box Man (whose title is just as literal as you'd like it to be). Just paging through, the book is full of found documents imported whole-cloth, typographical tricks, and a general weirdness that feels both sinister and playful.

Abe seems to really, really be my kind of an author, a very original voice that sounds sort of like Ishiguro, although making Ishiguro appear utterly mannered (except, perhaps, in The Unconsoled, and to a lesser extent Never Let Me Go). That said, I am a bit frightened (albeit in a good way) by Inter Ice Age 4 and would be curious to hear from anyone who has tackled this one.

Aharon Appelfeld and Kafka

Dan Green has an interesting post on the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld. The post touches on a number of points related to his novel All Whom I Have Loved, but I wanted to quote Dan's take on Appelfeld vis a vis Kafka:

Appelfeld is often enough compared to Kafka, but this comparison in turn generally assumes that Kafka's fiction is allegorical in a more or less overt way. But of course Kafka created narratives that appear to incorporate an allegorical level of meaning only to complicate and ultimately to deny that meaning. Kafka's world purports to be comprehensible, its ultimate sense to be discovered just around the next narrative turn, but it is finally a world of no-sense, or, more accurately, only of the aesthetic sense made through its own impeccable construction. Kafka is at pains to give his inscrutable world as much substance and texture as is necessary to make it. . .real. The point of reading Kafka's fiction is not, it seems to me, to arrive at a conclusion that the world we live in is absurd, or frightening, or grotesque, but that the world Kafka has created is self-sustaining and entirely logical.

If Kafka is a touchstone in understanding the work of Aharon Applefeld, then something like this focus on texture, on the imaginatively concrete, must be true of Appelfeld's fiction as well. Like Kafka, Appelfeld in all of his novels is concerned above all to sustain the integrity of his invoked world, to make the reader's experience of that world as palpable as the more customary world assumed in most novels. Indeed, if part of Appelfeld's ambition as a fiction writer is to recapture the lost world of prewar European Jewry, then insuring that the particulars remain in the foreground of the reader's attention seems all the more necessary, even if those particulars must unavoidably be filtered through fallible and subjective retrospection.

Appelfeld also has a novel recently published by Godine, Badenheim 1939.

I also noted that Dan's critical website, Critical Distance, has a new piece on Nicholas Baker. I'm a little too swamped to read it right now, but needless to say I'll get to it sooner or later.

Kafkaesque Criticism

Writing on Franz Kafka: The Office Writings in The New Republic, Louis Begley makes Kafka criticism sound a little, well, Kafkaesque:

Thus was constituted the trove of Kafka's painfully personal papers
that has since been ransacked by scholars looking for the sources of
his inspiration, for the materials that he put to use in his fiction.
They have battened by preference on scraps of paper: unconnected pages
in his notebooks, for example, of which there are many. Stanley
Corngold, one of the editors of The Office Writings,
repeats in his contribution to the volume, as though they were an
incantation fraught with meaning, the words "You, I said…." taken
from a jejune fragment transcribed in 1910 in Kafka's diary. Such
Delphic pronouncements from the grave lend themselves with particular
ease to fanciful, if not bizarre, interpretations. In the words of
Reiner Stach, the author of the most recent comprehensive biography of
Kafka, most of the published material resulting from such research
"consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No theory is
too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is
no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka's
work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to
imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them….It seems
like an industry that is an end unto itself…."

And a largely superfluous industry, when one recalls that Kafka was
able to gain the admiration of early readers, including Rilke and
Musil, Benjamin (perhaps the most astute critic of Kafka's work) and
Thomas Mann, Auden and Camus, without any of them having had access to
his personal papers, or being aware of more than the barest outline of
his life story. The silver lining in this large dark cloud of advanced
Kafka studies is that the more extreme conceits of the professors are
so rebarbative that there is almost no risk of their coming to the
attention of general readers, and thereby interfering with their
response to Kafka's art.

Feel the Strangulation!

This essay on several recent books by or about Kafka turns up this gem from the ossified Austro-Hungarian empire:

At the fin de siècle, the state bureaucracy already held
considerable sway over people’s lives and selves, and Kafka wrote from
the center of the age’s contradictions and anxieties. When he assumed
his position at the Insurance Institute in 1908, after having spent a
dismal year in the employ of Assicurazioni Generali, an Italian insurer,
the Dual Monarchy was groaning under a superabundance of paperwork.
Legislation enacted in the 1880s had ushered in the European welfare
state, and its administration required a massive expansion and
modernization of the notoriously sclerotic royal bureaucracy. By the
turn of the century, district authorities were processing four times
more paperwork than they had been twenty years earlier; the empire was
"being suffocated by files and drowning in ink," wrote the governor of
Lower Austria. Meanwhile, the arcane official idiom had become so
divorced from vernacular German that the bureaucrats and their charges
could hardly communicate. One imagines a cadre of clerks madly dashing
off reports and edicts, which would be inevitably eclipsed by newer
documents before they arrived at the appropriate filing facility. In
Kafka’s last, unfinished novel, The Castle, this flood of
imperial documents has so overwhelmed the citadel that the living rooms
of village homes have been turned into storage annexes.

For more on the literature this great stultified empire produced and why we love it so, see The List of Austro-Hungarian Literature.

The Next Village

This Space points me to The Next Village, a blog that invites writers and artists to respond to a very short short story of Kafka’s. (It’s about 50 words long.)

An interesting way to spread your affection for a piece of literature.

Kirsch on Kafka

On the heels of the new translation of Kafka’s novel Amerika, the NTYBR publishes a short essay on it by Adam Kirsch.

Kirsch spends some time situating the work in Kafka’s oeuvre and discusses the provenance of the titular k:

The [previous] translator Michael Hofmann, whose English version of the book appeared in 1996, correctly called it “the least read, the least written about and the least ‘Kafka’ ” of his three novels. Now Schocken Books, which has been the main publisher of Kafka’s works since the 1930s, hopes to reintroduce his first novel to the world with a new translation, by Mark Harman. “If approached afresh,” Harman promises in his introduction, “this book could bear out the early claim by . . . Brod that ‘precisely this novel . . . will reveal a new way of understanding Kafka.’ ”

Harman offers a compromise between Kafka’s intended title and Brod’s more familiar one by calling his version Amerika: The Missing Person ($25). And he follows previous English editions by retaining the German spelling of America, with a “k.” This lends the name, in American eyes, a more ominous and alien quality than it would have for the German reader. That “k” is hard to resist, however, and not just because readers have come to expect it. No writer has ever annexed a single letter the way Kafka did with “k.” Between the two in his own last name, Joseph K. of “The Trial” and K. of “The Castle,” the letter seems imbued with his own angular essence. Amerika is not America; it is a cipher for Kafka’s dream of a country he never visited.

I’ve got a copy of this and am eager to get into it. It will be something of a bittersweet read, though, as this novel is the last of Kafka’s major fiction works that I haven’t read.

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