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.

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Some remarks on *Some Remarks*

Neal Stephenson fans will love Some Remarks.  Eighteen articles dating from 1993 to 2012 and ranging from less than a page to the epic 118 page WIRED article, “Mother Earth, Mother Board.”  I had missed some of his short stories along the way, so I think the collection is a fun trip.  Short stories like “The Great Simoleon Caper,” detailing a country-free digital currency (think Bitcoin) make me want to go back and read Snow Crash.

The newest article with a clever name, “Arsebestos,” describes how sitting on one’s “arse” all day is killing us.  Of course, to those that have read REAMDE, one can’t help but to think of Skeletor, the once morbidly obese MMORPG player who replaced his chair with a treadmill and now has ridiculously low body fat.  Arsebestos expands on that idea with the standing desk concept: replace your desk at work with a slow speed treadmill.

But “Mother Earth, Mother Board” really is the centerpiece of the collection.  A mere essay by Stephenson standards, it is a Depth-First-Search into the cable laying industry of 1996.  Ok, it’s a bit dated, but it’s a true microcosm of Stephenson’s exhaustive writing style.  Lastly, the included forward to David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More, makes me want to go out buy that book. In the little I have read of DFW, I can see why he resonates with Neal.

In more mundane news, I’m a bit busier than usual at the moment with two classes: Operating Systems and Introduction to AI.  Both are fun so far, but very project intensive. The OS class will be a look into the linux kernel, after this first project implementing our own shell. When I get to write comments like :

Reap all Zombies!

How is that not fun?!?  The first project for AI is to write a solver for a sliding puzzle game in LISP. If I did any programming in LISP in undergrad, I can’t remember it.  But, the plus side is that my emacs-fu will be that much better after this!