The nightmare in Kafka’s The Trial is not too far from reality. Ok, maybe the scene where two bodyguards are thrashed for over twenty-four hours while seemingly no time has passed by to the narrator is a bit far-fetched, but besides that… If you have no good reason to read Franz Kafka, read The Trial so that you can know what it is like to have a nightmare described to you, in its complete obfuscated form. In The Trial, the bureaucracy makes a man so burdened by guilt over his innocence, it destroys him.
But for me, Kafka and Douglas Adams are two sides of the same coin. In a classic Infocom game created by Adams, called Bureaucracy appropriately enough, the dark side of Kafka is replaced with satirical wit. The game (which can be downloaded and played with a Z-interpreter) initially asks the player to fill out a form which, among other things, will
automatically change Mr. to Mrs. and vice versa. Throughout the game, the player is referred to by the incorrect title. Adams confronted Bureaucracy by acknowledging its stupidity, as shown in this hilarious letter.
Kafka’s characters tend to implode while Adams’ tend to explode. While insatiable guilt is a major theme across most of Kafka’s work, I much prefer the system-squashing works like the Trial and the Castle. For me, they are much more horrific. A perfect example of a Kafka guilt stricken character is Gregor Samsa in the Metamorphosis, who after waking up as an insect, immediately had angst over the fact he was late to work and how he should explain the situation to his boss.
Authors like Kafka, Adams, and even Joseph Heller perhaps resonate more with me due to my military experiences. All three write about how the bureaucracy can dehumanize. Compare the excerpts below from The Trial, Catch-22, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the ideas of bureaucracy vs man. One thing governments are consistently good at: coming up with euphemisms on how to make somebody irrelevant.
Do you know what this means? This means, that you will simply be deleted! (Auf deutsch: Weißt du, was das bedeutet? Das bedeutet, daß du einfach gestrichen wirst.) (The Trial)
It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t even good grammar. What the hell does it mean to disappear somebody?
(Catch-22 Yossarian is told by Nurse Duckett that officials are planing to “disappear” Dunbar, Chapter 34: Thanksgiving.)
What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? Oh, for heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light years away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs, that’s your own lookout. Energize the demolition beams.
(Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Chapter 3. The Vogons are incredulous as to why mankind did not follow a straightforward administrative procedure, which will now result in the demolition of Earth.)
And now I’m adding a new author to that list, Thomas Pynchon, as I’ve just started to read Gravity’s Rainbow. Already in characteristic Yossarian-style, one character in GR, who is supposed to be researching the German V-2 rocket attack locations, instead plots on a graph of London where the most attractive women are, prioritized by color. Maybe GR inspired this man to rank all of his online-dating dates in an excel file, only to have it posted on the Internet! My guess is that he probably hasn’t read the book…