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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The Catch-22 to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Trial

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

Franz Kafka Museum in Prague Русский: Музей Фр...
The entrance to the Kafka Museum in Prague. When I stumbled upon this museum, I was surprised to learn that one can text a phone number and the men will pee the message... (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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…