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Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka

Edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly

Rating: 3.4/5.0

Publisher: Tachyon Publications

One of the most interesting features of Kafkaesque is a short introduction by the author of each story, detailing the nature of that author’s relationship with and inspiration drawn from Franz Kafka. Jeffery Ford, author of the story “Bright Morning,” recalls his mixed feelings when the mass-published edition of his novel The Physiognomy, had no less than eight mentions of Kafka between the front and back covers and the blurb pages. When an author’s work is labeled as “Kafkaesque,” Ford explains, “it translates to the book buying public as obscure.” John Kessel and James Kelly’s anthology of stories inspired by Kafka will appeal primarily to those who accept this translation and are simply looking to read some delightfully weird stories. Kafkaesque misses an opportunity, however, to offer something to the hardcore Kafka fan, for whom the term “Kafkaesque” translates to “full of philosophical and interpretive challenges.”

The stories in Kafkaesque are diverse, yet invariably well-selected and fun to read. They are divided into three distinct groupings: stories that derive from a specific Kafka story, those that emulate a particular element of Kafka’s style and those that feature Kafka as a character. The first category contains several interesting takes on well-known Kafka tales. Carol Emshwiller delivers a clever feminist rework of Kafka’s Report to the Academy, in which Kafka’s ape is replaced by the first female member in an exclusively male society. T. Coraghessan Boyle comically adapts the labyrinthine bureaucracy and fiendish employees of The Trial to an auto repair shop in “The Big Garage.” Boyle’s automotive revision of The Trial is a fitting selection for this volume, as the term “Kafkaesque” seems to have become a common colloquialism to describe the DMV and our most desperately annoying car troubles. Jorge Luis Borges also derives his story “The Lottery in Babylon” from The Trial, in which a massive public lottery evolves into a sort of bureaucratic mysticism.

The second category, which contains stories with particular elements of Kafka’s style, was undoubtedly the most subjective in its selection. The editors; however, managed to choose stories that showcase extensive and varied stylistic influence of Kafka on contemporary writers. Kafka’s non-Aristotelian plot structures are addressed, as well as his deadpan introduction of the fantastic and painstaking description of those fantastical elements. In Terry Bisson’s “The Cockroach Hat,” the collection’s most bizarre and humorous work, ridiculous enormities are passed off in short, poker-faced phrases. Bisson’s story is a reminder of the twisted humor behind Kafka’s deadpan style, as well as a fitting homage to the historical reports that Kafka couldn’t get through a public reading of the beginning of The Trial without dissolving into fits of laughter.

After each story in Kafkaesque, the editors offer small dollops of commentary and analysis. It is in these blurbs that they miss a significant opportunity to offer something to the reader who already knows a thing or two about Kafka and would like to learn more. A notable example follows Paul Di Filippo’s “The Jackdaw’s Last Case.” Di Filippo’s story casts Kafka as a journalist by day, costumed crime-fighter by night, whose main adversary is radical Jewish terrorist dedicated to eliminating enemies of the Zionist cause. In Kessel and Kelly’s commentary they merely make the asinine observation that the story takes “creative liberties” with Kafka’s biography. They completely fail to mention the story’s treatment of one of the most problematic and fiercely debated interpretive challenges that Kafka’s works pose, which is his complicated relationship with his own faith and heritage. Omissions like these throughout the editors’ commentary in Kafkaesque suggest that perhaps Kessel and Kelly failed to realize in some instances just how well selected these stories were. In addition to serious oversights, the editors’ commentary frequently engages in pointing out the obvious. Even the most casual reader of Kafkaesque won’t need the editors’ help in noticing when a story literalizes a metaphor in the style of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, especially when that metaphor is also insect-related.

Kafkaesque is meant to demonstrate the extent of Kafka’s literary influence. While the editors in their simplistic annotations are not effective in making this case, the authors themselves pick up the slack in the prefaces to their stories. These musings range from outpourings of gratitude to Kafka for the inspiration he provided to laments about the inability to escape the ubiquity of Kafka’s influence and the accompanying interpretive assumptions. No matter what their feelings are towards Kafka, the authors themselves provide Kafkaesque with the best evidence of its thesis and the most powerful testimony to Kafka’s legacy. Then again, perhaps the greatest evidence of Kafka’s far reaching legacy lies simply in this collection’s title. The fact that Kafka’s name has become an adjective serves as testament to a single person’s ability to carve out a unique space in our culture and literary tradition.

by Frank Matt

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