Ruminations on Kafka

Reading a great story is similar to eating a delicious sandwich. One great sentence, like a delicious slice of salami, can be all it takes to satisfy. When we taste the relationship fresh, crisp cuts of lettuce have with the other ingredients, we taste the demands the sandwich maker made on their product before delivering it to us. Those of us, who never worked in the industry, don’t know the symbiotic relationship these ingredients should have with one another, but we know it when we taste it. Those of us who worked in the industry, and have some familiarity with the art of making a great sandwich, know that even the perfect symbiosis of the freshest, most delicious ingredients don’t matter if the sandwich artist doesn’t have great bread. The quality of the bread is the great divide between an average sandwich and a delicious one.

The consensus on author Franz Kafka is that he didn’t write great sentences. His prose was characterized by a Stanley Corngold as “luminous plainness”. I understand the ambiguity of that description, but while I concede that there are very few, there are some great lines. Anytime we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, our inclination is to add some “could’ve been, should’ve been” lines. Every time we think we found one, it just doesn’t quite fit. In the course of those efforts, Kafka’s style is unveiled, his economy of words, and the meticulous choreography of his story.

I would love to see some early drafts of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, just to see what he added and deleted in the course of editing. Did he have great sentences in the first draft only to realize they damaged the otherwise “luminous plainness” feel of the story? Did Gregor Samsa’s family have greater, more comedic reactions to Gregor transformation into an Ungeziefer ‘a beast unfit for sacrifice’? Did he vie for some greater entertainment in the story, or did he have a religious passion for the mundane feel for the story? My guess is that in the early drafts of this story, Kafka had to battle with an egotistical need to add something more to Metamorphosis to make it more. Did he initially have one of the characters make an incredibly insightful comment about humanity that illuminated for us how insightful Kafka was? Most authors cannot avoid the conceit of informing their readers how smart the writer is/was, and they do so by making indoctrinating their characters smarter, more intelligent, and brilliant. Were the characters funnier, more charming, more compassionate, more wonderful, or more something that every author wants their authors to think of them in those initial drafts? My guess is that Kafka probably had hundreds of versions before it reached final form, and that the final form we know today is an exhibition of the ego-less restraint he employed.

Great writers work through their strengths and weaknesses in pieces no one will ever see. Some of them learn that their path to a great story hinges on great sentences. Others find that devotion to ideas and style pays greater dividends. Some might suggest this is an author finding their voice. They do so in the course of reading others, trying to duplicate them, and eventually realizing what they’re greater strengths and weaknesses are.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think any reader will finish Metamorphosis with a “Holy Crud!” reaction. The reader might start the story in that vein, but Kafka diminishes the shock of a human transforming into an Ungeziefer with a level of choreographed reality the reader might find mundane. Thus, when we finish the story, it sits on a shelf in our mind like a preserved meat, until we process and digest it, in the manner we will a great sandwich. It might take a while, it might take an incident, but at some point concept of the story will hit us, and we’ll realize what a unique, and uniquely crafted story it was.

Whenever we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, we seek a reference point, a doorway into the mind of the author. Most great stories are about us, in some tangential manner. Some stories are so foreign to our experience that we cannot find a reference point, because we can’t possibly find ourselves in such a ludicrous story. The brilliance of Kafka is that his writing relies on an axis of narcissism and objectivity. Is it narcissist to believe that every story is about us, or is it narcissist to believe that none of them are? How do we define a great story? How does a great story define us? Do we know someone for whom the author speaks, and do we wish they would read Kafka to understand themselves a little better? How would they do that, what do we hope they might understand, and are our answers to those questions autobiographical?

To paraphrase author David Foster Wallace, readers should imagine a door when they approach a Kafka work. We seek a doorway into Kafka’s mind so that we can understand his works a little better. We seek a reference point, a point of entry. When we think we’ve found the doorway, we start “pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along.” 

One of the primary duties of every writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. How well they do this defines them. For one writer, it might be about the sentences, and for another it might be the idea that story is sacred. Some stories elicit instantaneous reactions, and some require some slow roasting. Some people don’t want to think too much. They want instant stories that provide a clear path from clear A to Z that culminate in an exciting conclusion. Millions of these books move from writer to reader, and the readers love them. Some of us prefer stories, like the ones Franz Kafka wrote, that reach in and fiddle with some different switches embedded deep in our psyche.

Kafka was an impersonal writer who chose to ground his greatest fantastical tale in reality. Prior to Kafka, and since him, most writers felt a need to form the basis for the fantastical with the fantastical. It just doesn’t seem realistic that something so uncommon should happen in a common home of common people. Kafka doesn’t fight against commonality in the manner some will by suggesting that the common can become uncommon. He chose to wrap his ingredients of “luminous plainness” in a bread of ideas and style.  

The Pit Stops of Life

The Pit Stop

The destination is the destination of our planned vacation. We pack the belongings, the kid, and the dog with a destination in mind. When someone suggests that we take a pit stop, we say, “Why? We’re making good time here. At this rate, we should arrive at our destination by four p.m., with plenty of time to do much of what we planned.” The fun and frivolity we dreamed up, when we dreamed up this vacation, all took place at the final destination. Pit stops seem like a waste of the precious time we could spend having fun. The dilemma arrives when we arrive at our destination, and we have nothing to do for the first couple of hours.

“[He] never made pit stops,” a woman said of her now deceased husband. “He thought pit stops were a waste of time. He wanted to get there.” 

Well, he’s there now, I thought of joking. He’s at his final destination. It would’ve been an awful, cruel joke. No one would’ve laughed, of course. No one would’ve so much as smiled. How many pit stops did he make to his final destination? Did he go quickly? He wasn’t the type to stop at a lakeside pit stop. “He wanted to get there.”

I didn’t say any of that, but in the midst of my scheme to drop that room-silencing, reputation damaging joke, I realized that I’m a no-pit-stops destination traveler too. I don’t stop to smell the flowers, look at a lake, or carpe diem the moment. I get there, wherever there is. I want to have fun, and I don’t want something like a pit stop to get in the way of it. 

When we map out our vacation, it often involves lengthy travel times. Even on paper, we know we’re signing on for a long journey, even when they’re all interstate miles. It doesn’t get any better when we’re doing it. As the miles click by, it begins to feel like a Sisyphean trial of humanity to sit in a small car for that many hours in a row, and it doesn’t matter how large the interior of an automobile is, they all feel small after eight hours. The family might want to smell the flowers and look at a lake, but I’m the “Let’s just get there for all that’s holy. Let’s get this drive over” type of traveler. 

The volume of the consensus breaks us down, however, and we take a pit stop. Their primary goal, after such long car ride, was to get out and stretch the legs a little, go to the bathroom, get the kid out of the car for a while, and let the dog pee. We’re not for it, but we strike a deal with those who are dying to get out of the car. We decide we won’t stay long. We’ll look at stuff, we’ll walk down to the lake and throw some stones in it. We’ll talk to some of the other people who made a similar pit stop, we’ll let the dog run around with whatever joy he always runs around in, and the kid can have some spontaneous kid fun. Then we’ll take that almost cinematic portrait with that crystal blue lake in our background, and we’ll all get back in the car for another three hours. 

I don’t know if I needed the break more than I knew, but I was peaking at this particular pit stop. Some of the times, we have mental peaks, some of the times, we have physical ones, but every once in a great while they come together. Before we turn 25, our whole life is one peak after another. The only stories we tell involve those moments when we weren’t peaking. After 40, we are so impressed with our peaks that we tell everyone we know. Everything in between involves noticing peaks after the fact. I was peaking at that little pit stop. I was in the moment, the moment I stepped out of the car. I wasn’t thinking about the car ride ahead of us, how this pit stop might hamper our pre-planned schedule, or anything else for that matter. Once I stepped out of the car, I wanted to make this stupid, little pit stop as fun as it could possibly be. 

We had so much fun at that little pit stop that it proved one of the best we have ever experienced on vacation. When we finally arrived at our proposed destination, we had all the fun we planned to have, and I remember that vacation as one of the better ones we’ve had. We may have spent four days at our proposed destination, and we only spent 30 minutes at that non-commercial pit stop, but the time we spent there will forever stick out in my memory.

City on a Hill

I love a great line. A great line can make a movie (90 minutes long, on average) or a series (roughly 47 minutes per episode, with ten episodes on average) seem worth it. Anyone who reads this will probably say that it says a lot about me, but my favorite lines are the obnoxiously offensive and repugnant lines of vulgar cruelty. Some heart-warming, positive lines, reach me, but nothing causes me to pause and rewind more than an awful line from an awful character. 

I also prefer shows and movies that depict people doing and saying awful things to one another. There are exceptions, of course, as some shows are awful for the sole purpose of being awful. The great shows, about awful people doing awful things to one another, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men always managed to preserve some relatable integrity in their characters while doing and saying awful things to other characters. We learn to cheer the main characters on, and when they did awful things to other characters, we cheer that on too. 

The Showtime series City on a Hill is not as great as those shows, of course, but it did have one great, repugnant, moment of vulgar cruelty. 

“I can hear it now. The eulogies, the hymns, the bagpipes, everyone forgetting what a lousy piece of [dung] you’ve been your entire life,” the Jackie Rohr character says to his rival J.R. Minogue, on an episode of the TV show City on a Hill. The Minogue character lies in the ambulance, and we know he’s not going to live long enough to see the hospital. We know Rohr’s cruel sendoff will be the final thing the Minogue character hears. “Your wife’s going to be upset [after you die] for about five minutes, and I will … eventually, but this should be a comfort to both of us. There’s no hell. There’s only this life, right here, right now, and the last thing that you’re going to see in your lousy life is my ugly face.”

Seconds before this scene, Rohr eagerly leapt into the ambulance that carried J.R. Minogue, before the EMTs could close the door. We know this scene. We’ve seen it all before. The main character, a law enforcement official, leaps into the ambulance to hold a fellow cop’s hand, as the man succumbs to death. Even though they’re bitter rivals, Minogue’s a fellow cop, and that goes along way to forming some solidarity between the two. That’s the typical scene, in the typical cop movie, but the writers of City on a Hill had other plans for Rohr. They have him mock his rival on his deathbed, and he lays into Minogue with vulgar cruelty.

Ever since Sopranos, and perhaps beyond, viewers have come to accept the idea that their favorite main characters on their favorite productions can be morally ambiguous, if not downright awful people. Through a dizzying array of scenes, we accept the idea that Jackie Rohr is one such character. Yet, what motivates this character to be this spiteful? We’re to read into it. We’re to wonder if we could ever be that spiteful. We’ve all had people we dislike in a competitive manner, and we dislike others in a more personal manner, but have we ever hated someone so much that we wanted to taunt them into death? Most of us haven’t. I obviously considered this scene an interesting nugget to chew on, and I wanted a more thorough psychological exploration of why, or how, even a Jackie Rohr could be that spiteful and that hateful. Scenes like these remind me why I prefer books to movies.

We understand that when Rohr says, “This should be a comfort to both of us. There’s no hell,” he does so to inform the viewers that he knows that he’s as awful as J.R. Minogue is. That line sets up the next line well, but after I paused the series at that point and rewound it a number of times, I thought up a better line. 

“There is no heaven, and there is no hell. There’s no such thing as an afterlife.” If the writers seek spite, this might be an altogether different level of spite, because as awful as J.R. Minogue apparently was, he likely tried to counter those evil deeds with some good ones throughout his life. It might be even more spiteful to inform him that those good deeds he performed, and any other attempts Minogue made at good and honest living, were a waste of time, because “there is no heaven.”

Rohr then alluded to the idea that his main point for jumping in the ambulance was to make sure that Minogue’s loved ones weren’t the faces he remembered. Rohr wanted his face, Minogue’s most hated rival, to be the last face he saw. I see the writer(s) working here. I know that they’re vying for one of the more spiteful moments in TV history, but if there is no afterlife, and J.R. Minogue turns to dust, there will be no way for Minogue to remember the final moments that Rohr hoped to ruin. He’ll turn to non-existence, and Rohr’s awful sentiments will die as soon as Minogue does. A better line might have been, “There is an afterlife, and we don’t know where you’re going yet, but if they somehow determine in their mysterious ways, that a piece of [dung] like you is worthy of eternal paradise, I’m here to ruin all that for you by providing you your own personal definition of hell, knowing that my ugly face was the last thing you saw in your time spent on Earth.”

I read an interesting complaint regarding individuals who follow religious philosophies. The complainant suggested that religious people fail to appreciate their lives on earth as much as they should, because they place inordinate focus on achieving eternal paradise in the next life. Whether there is an afterlife or not, even if it involves a level of paradise beyond our wildest imagination, something tells me that we’ll look back on our lives on earth with some regret if we don’t make more time to enjoy the pit stops in life, en route to our final destination.

The Death of the Novel

“There’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said before,” Terence in the second century B.C.

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” –Andre Gide

“The idea that everything has already been said has already been said.”

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, someone needs to artistically slaughter the traditional novel, the novelly novel, out in the street for all to see. That which was once so important to us, is now dead. Writers will keep writing novels, and readers will keep reading them, but the era of the novel, as a cultural touchstone, has been on artificial life support for some time now waiting for someone to pull the plug, so we can reframe the real and rebirth it. Some young, ambitious kat needs to step up to the plate and destroy the art form in such a glorious way that its readers know there’s no turning back.

We pick up a book now, in our local bookstore, and the back jacket makes it feel so real, so vibrant and so cutting edge. Then we see it, the dreaded words “a novel” on the cover. We used to think that all it would take is one exciting, “I just can’t put it down” novel to reignite our passion for the novel, but we’ve read too many paint by numbers’ narrative conventions to believe that will happen. We’ve read too many authors depict wonderful and beautiful landscapes, in captivating wordscapes to want to go through it all again. We’ve read too many authors sort through romanticized sentiments in relatable conversations with side characters to give us a sense that they’re all a lot more like me than I ever considered possible. We’ve read too many authors deploy shadowing techniques to display how clever their main character is by showing us how dumb her side characters are. We put that novel back on the shelf, because we now know that in the author’s attempt to wow us with their artistry, they will attempt to please all of the people all of the time.

Our complaint might not be with the novel alone, but the novel used to be our favorite form of expression. The novel allows its author the sort of in-depth analysis of the human mind for which no other art form has the patience. The novel permits us to live, breathe, and be the character. In the more visual mediums, we might arrive at more immediate entertainment, but they fail to capture the intimacy of a great book. For most of my life, there was nothing better than a great book, and I was always reading one. As I write this, I haven’t read a novel in five years, and that was some light fare compared to my unusual favorites. 

Perhaps we’ve read too many novels at this point, but we can spot an author’s agenda a mile away, and most of us don’t want to know what the author’s agenda is. On the off chance that we enjoy it in some manner, her cloaked positions will strike us as derivative and redundant, and we will spend the breadth of the novel thinking we could’ve written it better. Typically, her main characters will be remarkable faultless, and her bad guys bumbling fools. She will engage in tired tropes, such as children being smarter than adults are, and everyone else knowing more about “the industry” than the CEO who spent 25 years in it. Bad guys gotta be bad and good girls, gotta be good. It’s so tired now that we need some new author to have the audacity to shake it up and teach us something different about ourselves.

In the same way Sam Raimi and the Coen Brother’s “Shaky Cam” killed the typical horror movie, essays, philosophical tracts, and the internet ruined the novel. The novel no longer feels as real or as relevant as it once did. It no longer feels substantial, engaging and cutting edge. It could be as simple as short form vs. long form, but we don’t think so. We think it has more to do with our hunger for some version of an author punching reality into our jugular.

The novel died right after we said, “The novel is not dead!” The writer who pines for a best-seller list might say such things, but does an artist who uses the novel as an expressive art form? After reading a novel, we should charge its author as an accessory to its murder. The reader should despise them for violating the conventions they hold dear. The writer should exhaust the reader’s anger until the reader grows to love them. “I see what you’re doing now, but it took me a while sheesh!” should be the first words that come out of her mouth when she’s done being so irritated with the writer that she put the book down numerous times (in absolute frustration) before she finally finished it.

“Don’t insult the reader,” the writing magazines advise. “Pay attention to your reader.”

Those of us who come from a punk rock school of writing think the modern writer should learn all of the novel’s conventions for the sole purpose of violating them more creatively, and we think they should know them so well that they boldly change them in an atypical fashion. If you think you know what this means, invert that thought, and give that a try. Insult the reader, we say, anger them, and make them despise us for writing what we wrote. We need to confuse, confound, and control the reader’s mind, until they come back begging for more. Could one book do all this? It would have to be an incredible book. I’m more inclined to believe it might take a movement, similar to what punk rock and grunge did for hard rock. 

“I did this for me,” we should tell those writing magazines. “By giving you me, I’ll give you you,” as author David Shields would say.

Even if our subject matter is pleasing, we should write in a way that makes the reader uncomfortable. As boring as most novels are, some earn our hard-earned money. Some offend our sensibilities so much that we find them thrilling. We’re on the edge of our seat wondering how this book is going to offend us next. We finish the book on a spiritual high, only to learn that our compadres have their thumbs adamantly pointed down. “I found it so repugnant that it made me feel uncomfortable,” they said. “Me too!” we say from a 180-degree different standpoint.

Your job, as a writer, is to take us to uncomfortable places. Tap into some uncomfortable places in our psyche and force us to explain them. “I’m not a bad guy.” You’re not, but you could be, if I placed you in such an uncomfortable position that you thought about it. “But I enjoy laughing, and I enjoy it when some beautiful text makes me feel wonderful about myself.” Is wonderful what you’re feeling, or is it publicity? How loud do you shout it out? What’s the difference between charity and publicity? That’s it, right in the jugular. Does it hurt? It’s supposed to hurt. A great writer shouldn’t address what we want. They should address need. Novel writers did that at one time. They’re a dying breed now.

We enjoy labeling eras. How about we label this era the era of same same? This is an era of “if it works, try, try, and try it again.” It’s a little narcissist to list the authors who killed the novel as an art form, but let’s just say that they might’ve been there for a rebirth, but they never did anything to help it mature. This sentiment might lead some to consider us jealous that other writers succeeded beyond us. We can assure you this is not the case, as we want some great author to mess the mainstream up with a hyper-real novel that shakes up our whole world. Yet, it’s impossible to defeat that charge, so let’s focus on an analogous comparison.

I loved the authors in question for a time, as much as I once loved Metallica. I loved the Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All albums. I don’t listen to their other albums, but I have no problem with them trying to make a buck on subsequent albums. I just don’t buy them. Other people were angry that Metallica didn’t close up shop after Justice. Why? Let people buy their other albums, let Metallica get rich. We don’t have to listen to their other albums. We have nothing against a guy trying to make a buck in any other field, but art is special. An artist has an added responsibility to the art form that made them rich. After an artist creates their masterpiece, they need to dabble in the art form to expand it and enrich it. To my mind, the great artist creates a masterpiece, and then they spend the rest of their life trying to destroy it. They should appreciate the masterpiece for everything it was, and they should never insult those who loved it and made them what they are, but they should feel a personal vendetta to top the masterpiece. They might never again create another masterpiece, but they should do whatever they can to create the uniquely spectacular after the fact.

The authors in question often come out with a book a year that duplicates the formula of the masterpiece. How many great books does one author have in them? They write one great book, sign a huge advance for another, and in their desire to make that publisher happy, they create the derivative and redundant, and everyone is happy and no one is. “It’s not as good as his masterpiece,” we say. “How many sequels are?” they reply, laughing all the way to the bank, trotting upon the art form as they escape. The question the reader asks themselves is do we want the author to destroy their masterpiece in their next outing, or do we want to remember them as they were, in the manner of the great athlete.

“Punk rock died when the first punk said, “Punk’s not dead.””

If punk rock wasn’t dead, they should’ve killed it. Those who loved punk rock should’ve planned some bloody, very public, ritual death. Never Mind the Bullocks should’ve been the only punk rock album ever made. One album of absolute anarchy and everything after it mimicked the premise and became commodity. The Sex Pistols were a horrible band, and Never Mind the Bullocks was a horrible album, but those who loved it, loved the definitive punk rock album for what it was. It stood for nothing and something that shouldn’t last. If it does last, it sounds more orchestrated and contrived in every form that follows, thus violating everything for which it stood. Everything you believe in is wrong, and all of that nonsense. The whole motif of that album and the movement it started was that everything is dead.

The novel is dead long live the novel. The truth is dead long live the truth. We should have an artistic labeling process that mirrors the Motion Picture Association of America. An M, signifies the author’s masterpiece, a DR designation informs the reader of the subsequent works from the author that are derivative and redundant, and a US rating informs the reader that the novel in question is not a masterpiece, but it is unique spectacular. Such ratings might help us avoid reading another book by an author, other than their best books. 

Tell the truth, then take it out to the side of the barn and kill it. Don’t try to recreate and recapture. It’s retread. Eat the truth and let it work its way through the digestive system and ask others what they think of it.  

“Jazz as jazz—jazzy jazz—is pretty well finished. The interesting stuff is all happening on the fringes of the form where there are elements of jazz and elements of all sorts of other things as well. Something similar is happening in prose. Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms.” –A review of Reality Hunger on Goodreads.

When we read a great novel by an author, do we seek light entertainment, or entertainment-lite, or do we seek truth when we read a novel? Why then do we read 20 to 30 novels by the same author? How many unique novels does one author have in them? I wasted some of my life doing this once. I spotted the author’s template, and I kept reading. I didn’t violate my rule when I did this. I created the rule. I’d never do it again. I hear a song on the radio I might enjoy, and I flip the station. I’ve heard it too many times. I know every lyric, every beat, pause, bridge, and drum and bass exchange by heart. I change the channel just to avoid redoing what I’ve done a thousand times before. When we spot the template, be done with it. End it now. The author revealed the essence of their truth in that one great book. How many times can they recapture that magic, how many times can we join them before it becomes redundant. They know, and we know, that we enjoy patterns, but how many patterns can we enjoy before we end up chasing our own tail with brainless, puppy like enthusiasm?

“All an author needs is one great book,” Truman Capote.

“Everyone has one great book in them,” Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway tried a novel approach to achieving the unique novel after he wrote a masterpiece. He destroyed his life … numerous times. He divorced, remarried, and drank his way to total destruction to pave a path to a new novel, until he decided to destroy his life in an ultimate manner. We might not want to follow Hemingway’s path of destroying his own happiness to achieving creativity, but someone needs to find ‘the road not taken’ to put an end to everyone chasing their tails in novel form.