Kafka is hilarious says DFW and I

I was elated to find Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace (DFW) on my library’s staff pick shelf.  I’ve been meaning to read it so I quickly snatched the book.  The opening essay on the Adult Video News awards[1], is absolutely hysterical. My favorite line:

A suspicion that we’d had all week but decided was unverifiable is now instantly verified when one of yr. corresps. gets accidentally shoved against a starlet and is jabbed in the side by her breasts and it hurts.[2]

The third essay in the collection, “Some remarks on Kafka’s funniness from which probably not enough has been removed”, laments that “it is next to impossible to get [American college undergraduates] to see that Kafka is funny.”  His example is “A Little Fable:”

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day.  At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.[3]

Kafka captures the absurdness of modern life and presents it in a very chilling way.  I think most people find his delivery style unnerving and uncomfortable.  But in works like The Castle, he perfectly captures the individual helplessness caused by bureaucratic paradox.  It is his subtlety that makes it great and that is where the humor lies.  He’s like a Douglas Adams[4], but just not as in-your-face.

In this sense, I disagree with Joseph Epstein’s Is Kafka Overrated?.  He concludes with, “great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.”  While he may have been crushed, his stories force readers to consider uncomfortable truths.  When we stress about whether to check-in at work, despite being ill and most likely virally contagious, we are having a Metamorphosis moment.  When Glenn Greenwald’s partner was held at Heathrow airport for nine hourshe was re-living The Trial.  The irony of The Castle[5] was not lost on me when I was involuntarily recalled to Afghanistan, only to be sent home because my job had been canceled months ago.  Kafka provides comic relief for the modern life, especially one where governments are increasingly infringing on our privacy.[6]  When you take your shoes off at the airport gate, knowing that this ceremony is delusional, but you choose not to engage your rational being and acquiesce, Kafka is enjoying the schadenfreude.


[1] I’m not going to link to that one, you can find it yourself. *

[2] The essay is worth a read. You may learn more than you’d like about the Adult Video industry, but if you are a DFW fan it has all of the elements of a great essay from him.

[3] It’s no use trying to explain this. As DFW states, “[…] great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communications theorist sometimes call exformation, which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.”

[4] In Adams’ Bureaucracy) game, the player must resolve a series of bureaucratic mistakes that arise from a change of address. If one does not solve puzzles in time, the player’s blood pressure rises as a result of being frustrated which can ultimately result in an aneurysm.

[5] The meeting with K. and the mayor is especially apropos. See page 55-56.

[6] See my last post for a mini-lecture on privacy and its manifestation in other media.

* DFW fans will enjoy this comic from Pictures for Sad Children:

DFW stranded on a desert island
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