- The Nothing That Is
My sophomore year of college I signed up for a comparative literature survey class that sampled the great works of the Western world from Goethe to Garcia Marquez. I was fairly new to literature— I'd hardly read at all in high school—but over the past year I'd decided it was the most important thing in the world to me, something to which I'd swiftly and happily pinned my identity. This decision arose partly out of genuine passion; Dylan Thomas's poetry had moved me the first time I'd read it, and Chaucer's Miller's Tale had made me laugh out loud. But I also liked the idea of myself as someone who was passionate about literature, and even more, the idea of other people recognizing me for such passion, which struck me as unique and distinguished, a mark of my sophisticated and mysterious nature.
All this was part of a larger transformation I'd undergone over the past year, moving to North Carolina, quickly abandoning the New Jersey accent I previously hadn't even been aware of, taking my first tentative steps toward independence. It had never occurred to me before that an identity was something I could construct for myself. It didn't occur to me now, either, at least not consciously, though as soon as I was gone from my parents' house I was aware that no one around me knew who I was, or who I'd been, and that, given a little effort, I could be whoever I claimed to be.
The comp lit course description caught my attention, and I carried it around in my pocket over winter break, as if to remind myself of the person I'd become. On it were big books I wanted to tell people I'd read—Faust, Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary —along with others I'd never heard of but whose titles intrigued me: Dead Souls, Death in Venice. Yes, death caught my attention.
What better subject for a nineteen-year-old obsessed with transformation? Above all, though, I was excited about Kafka, who was then to me nothing more than a name. I knew he'd written a story about a [End Page 152] man who turned into a bug, but I hadn't read that story or any others. Still, the name meant something to me. I associated it with mystery and weirdness and cryptic knowledge, and if anyone had asked I would have claimed to be a fan. That I hadn't yet read him was simply a matter of patience. I was waiting for the right moment. I didn't want to rush it, when I had so much to read for classes, though I did find plenty of time to read other writers, spending long hours in the stacks of the library, poring over The Waste Land and The Cantos, neither of which I understood and both of which I pretended to love.
Around the same time that I signed up for the class, a friend introduced me to LSD. This, too, was something about which I'd feigned knowledge, though when I finally experienced it, I was surprised to discover how little my imagination held up to this new distorted reality. The acrobatics and contortions through which the drug exercised my mind alternately fascinated and terrified me. I spent hours staring at the wiggling lines of my fingerprints, or at a textured ceiling crawling with neon death's-heads, and felt confirmed in my belief—copped from watching David Lynch films—that the world was stranger than I knew, that the reality I took for granted was shaky and porous, a mask for other realities lurking just out of sight. I was primed for further transformation, though a part of me resisted it, fearing that I might not be able to transform myself back. Delaying reading Kafka may have been part of my strategy for keeping at least one foot in the world I knew.
On the first day of class, though, I was disappointed to find that Kafka wasn't on the schedule until early April. It...