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Kafkosh B’Gosh

All realist stories are alike. All non-realist stories are non-realist in their own way.

Over a decade later, I am still fuming over Harold Bloom’s popularizing and unhelpful book How to Read and Why (2001), where, among many vapid generalizations, he says that there are only two routes the short story can take: The Chekhovian route of realism, and the Kafkian route of fantasy. Well, it may be the case that the kind of psychological realism practiced by writers stylistically as diverse as Henry Fielding, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and Hillary Mantel are all the same: since realism operates in the world (it thinks) we share, it presumably cleaves to the same standard across the Western world and wherever the disenchantment of everyday life has taken place. (Note to self: re-read Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis one of these days.) But non-realism? Each novelist, each novel, can play by its own rules, and not cleave to the trail blazed by the one non-realist author, however great, favored by Mr. Western Canon. Furthermore, it’s pretty sloppy thinking to say that all of Kafka’s non-realistic writing constitutes “one” route: “The Metamorphosis” is different from The Trial and The Castle, and both differ from “The Judgment,” and they all differ from “The Penal Colony,” und so weiter.

Well, I’m glad I got that out of my system. Because in the great wide landscape of the fantastic that is available for any non-realistic writer, so far The Flame Alphabet seems to be choosing to invoke a whole lot of aspects of the Kafkaesque for its project.

Of course you can also find other more recent and American literary DNA in this book: the bureaucracy in the Toxic Airborne Event in Don Delillo’s White Noise; all the satires of suburbia that I associate with Updike and Cheever (without my, umm, actually having read them); and a con man’s love affair with meaningless scientific vocabulary that is both in highbrow fiction (Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, and some of the later chapters of Ulysses) and in the kind of lowbrow humor of Mark Twain and William S.Burroughs.

Nevertheless, the best point of comparison, I think, is Kafka. (Comparison and contrast: I’ll get to interesting, crucial differences.) Kafka often teases you into trying to make either an allegorical or a psychoanalytical (or, at a stretch, a theological) drama out of the non-realistic event that takes place. Gregor’s a bug because his family has always treated him as less than human, or maybe it’s society; the edifice of the courts or the castle are bureaucracy, or maybe the knots we tie ourselves up in hoping for the favor of a distant or absent God. The protagonist often interacts with some strange extravagant man in the public spaces, as Murphy interacts with Sam in this book so far. Most of the Kafka narratives that I’ve cited above are either first-person, or the third-person that cleaves closely to the protagonist and that does not correct the protagonist’s mistakes or otherwise tell the reader what is “really” happening. (A one-size-fits-all theory of the fantastic from 1970 by French-Romanian structuralist Tzvetan Todorov argued that the entire genre depends on keeping the reader suspended between a realistic explanation for a strange event and a magical one. On the contrary, for me the Kafkaesque erupts when the reader simply gives up trying to figure out the “cause” of the strange event. The second sentence of “The Metamorphosis”: “It was no dream.”) And yeah, the Jewish Untermensch. The Flame Alphabet wants to draw on all this, so far.

Of course we can now start the contrast with the Kafkaesque project. This is not a son tormented by his ambivalent love of often hostile parents, but a father (and all adults) tormented by their ambivalent love of often hostile children. Typical Kafka families are lower-middle-class; this one is upper-middle-class (and indeed so far how money and work continue during a plague hasn’t been addressed at all). The typical Kafka protagonist is a loner (although sometimes a woman accompanies him for a while); this story so far also involves how Sam and Claire’s relationship is tested under these extreme fantastic circumstances. (For whatever reason, I expected a typical family arrangement in which the father and daughter form a sort of a team against the mother, but this is not at all how this family works.)

Finally, on the level of the sentence the rhythms of these authors are utterly different: in the better translations from the German you can hear those long run-on sentences in which the Kafka character ponders a course of action or predicts how someone will react but then qualifies or corrects or argues with himself repeatedly until the thought grounds to a halt. In FA the sentences are short, self-conscious, a bit theatrical in Marcus’s search for the right phrase to describe the new status quo, and Sam is frequently aware that he has no intellectual justification for his actions or inactions; he is in on this irony, but it doesn’t hurt him any less when his religion is of no help to him or when he suggests quarantining Esther to his wife, etc.. And the point of narration is not yet fully clear: chs. 3-15 are flashback from the day that Sam and Claire decide to abandon their house to Esther, narrated in chs. 1-2, but it isn’t clear yet whether the narrator is telling the whole book from that point (I suspect just Part One will be that way), or to what extent he writes after the plague has run its course: “I should be honest here, and there is no one left whom I wish to deceive” (64)).

I don’t see much Kafka in the contraption of the Jewish sect Marcus spins out for Sam and Claire. I liked the zaniness of it more the first time I read this, as he creates a religion without the least shred of community (and yet it has room –well, it has hut– for domestic couples). Rabbi Burke’s ideas about language, weakness, secrecy, and refusing to interpret or discuss the sacred word are close enough to many strains of mysticism, including Jewish strains, to be a plausible riff on actually existing religions, while the real reason Marcus has Sam and Claire claim that this is a sort of Judaism is, I think, to remind us of the long tradition of victimization and scapegoating Jews have endured during times of plague and economic unrest.

I’m being very big-picture today. I may supplement this post mid-week reminding people of cool scenes and artful sentences.


June 7, 2015 - Posted by | The Flame Alphabet | , ,


  1. I consider Harold Bloom a hideously, atrociously bad critic. I tried to read his book on Shakespeare because I’d been asked to give a review at a local library’s book discussion hour, but it was so insanely repetitive and devoid of any insight (summary: Shakespeare invented every significant aspect of the modern self) that all I could say to the assembled library crowd was “read a Shakespeare play, but stay away from this bloated, pompous sack of presumption”. Strangely Bloom’s book American religion was quite a bit better and I got a lot from it, but since Anxiety of influence I don’t know of any literary criticism Bloom has produced worth reading.

    Comment by Andreas | June 8, 2015

  2. For what it’s worth and unrelated to Flame Alphabet, I think Bloom was worth reading up until The Western Canon, and even in that you can find some good stuff if you ignore the style. The introductions to all of those guides to literary criticism throughout the ’80s that he supervised (grad students did all the real work) showed him at his best and worst: even in ~10pp., you could tell how much or how little of the writer in question he had read. The Western Canon basically argues that you shouldn’t feel that you have to read everything, but then he forgot that if you haven’t read something you shouldn’t have an opinion about it (including an opinion about whether or not it’s worthy of being canonical).

    Comment by poc2666 | June 20, 2015

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