- K is for Kafka
Karen An-Hwei Lee
143 Pages; Print, $14.95
The plot of Sonata in K, Karen An-Hwei Lee’s lyrical homage to Franz Kafka, comes straight out of Hollywood science fiction: The author of The Metamorphosis (1915) and The Trial (1925) has been reanimated, cloned “from a finger-bone illegally excavated from a grave in Prague” or possibly replicated as “a hologram designed from one of [his] photographs.” Summoned to twenty first century Los Angeles by an enigmatic director-producer duo to work on a film, Kafka relies on K, his Japanese-American interpreter and the novel’s narrator, to help him make sense of the intervening years since his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1924.
Debut novelist Lee, a poet and critic, hits the customary comic notes of the fish-outof-water conceit. Familiar devices baffle the anachronistic writer, who refers to an elevator as a “claustrophobic room” that levitates. He would likely not be impressed with the panoply of milk and milk substitutes that fill the shelves of today’s big-box stores: “Whole milk is fat with butter. One can see the gold flecks in whole milk, layered with butter-fat cream on top. Amerikan milk is skimmed cave-water.” But Lee’s evocative (re)imagining, alternating between prose and verse, hinges less on how much has changed between centuries than on how little. The choice of citrus at a farmer’s market, described in a verse letter from Kafka to his friend and editor Max Brod, overwhelms him in its almost grotesque plenitude:
Fragments of blood oranges,honey tangerines, navel oranges, the cara caraand valencias, glossy tangelos, clementines,or satsumastough-skinned, eaten out of hand, sliced in wedges—even a hot-house bitter orange treefor one’s room in winter.Max, I felt a migraine coming onas I floundered through the market, crazedby thousands of oranges, oranges, oranges.
In Lee’s contemporary “Amerika,” we are all hunger artists, condemned, like the titular protagonist of Kafka’s short story from 1922, to starve for lack of a sustenance we search for but never find.
The parallels don’t get any cheerier. Kafka learns from his interpreter about the death of Brod, the death of his sisters in concentration camps during World War II, and the subsequent peace founded on the threat of nuclear conflagration. At one point in his guided wanderings, Kafka asks K if LA’s omnipresent smog is fallout from an atomic explosion: [Begin Page 30]
Is this the ash we’re inhaling?I hope not, Mister Kafka.Why invent such a thing?To end wars, I suppose.Did it work?Not quite.
Kafka is in some ways no less omnipresent in the new millennium than the “ash we’re inhaling.” Bureaucracy, virtual reality, what passes for politics—all are tinged to a greater or lesser degree by the adjective “Kafkaesque,” arguably his most salient contribution to culture today. Nevertheless, Lee is determined to resurrect a more complex Kafka than the author’s work might suggest. This is not to say that the novel lacks moments of the weird or uncanny. Kafka’s tortuous back-and-forth with his director and producer is reminiscent of stories like “The Judgment,” in which the atmosphere shifts, almost imperceptibly thanks to their absurdist humor, from conversation to interrogation:
This is not my original novella.Mister Kafka.A rhinoceros is not in the novel.In love. A blind rhinoceros.No, no.Audiences love a tale of love.I asked Max to burn everything.So you agree to the rhinoceros.No, no.
And while Kafka struggled to understand himself as an individual throughout his life, in death, the vocabulary he bequeathed us is nothing more than spectacle for mass consumption. In an oft-quoted letter, Kafka compares a book to an axe for breaking up the frozen sea within. In contemporary Los Angeles, the figure is literalized without the aura of insight:
…our ice-hockey team is fairly well-known. Where are the frozen lakes? Are they underground?
Our hockey team plays indoors.A frozen lake indoors?An...