Kafkaesque, [adj]: of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially : having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.
A strange encounter to be sure: while browsing the net to find a special edition Chanel No.5 perfume bottle for mother’s day, I stumble upon a blog with the title Kafkaesque that strangely has a review of the perfume. It makes me ponder the extent to which the term has been applied, both prematurely and accurately, to various aspects of the world. There have been numerous ideologies attached to a writer’s name, notably in the philosophical realm: Rousseauvian, Hegelian, Deleuzian, etc. Even more contemporary writers have been granted such privileges: Salingerism and Mailerism, for example. But with no other writer has such a culture developed around the author’s name as with Kafka. The term Kafkaesque describes the nightmarish quality of writing and plot, wherein the protagonist is helplessly confounded by and at the mercy of exterior, bizarre circumstances that she cannot control. Frederick R. Karl defines Kafkaesque as ‘when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world.’ Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle are exemplary examples of this phenomenon, the protagonist K. (or Joseph K.) being thwarted by dark powers he cannot comprehend. The Metamorphosis displays this nightmarish quality par excellence, while it also functions in Amerika , or, The Man who Disappeared to throw the protagonist, Karl, from several different posts and places, his wanderings characteristic of the bizarre element of Kafka’s work.
Of all the writers in the world Kafka is oddly, for me, the most approachable despite the dark elements he displays, for the reader can sympathise with Kafka’s state of mind and characters more so than any other author. Kafka’s narrators are so often powerless that it sets up an accessible narrative that the reader is most likely to be familiar with. If, as Proust writes, the novel is a mirror held up to the world (a notion I find troubling), then Kafka is one of the few writers who is able to deliver this bleak reality, more so than the existentialists who, while providing insight into the meaninglessness of life, do not illuminate the manipulations of exterior forces as cunningly (which should be to no one’s surprise). Kafka’s work is an exploration of the elements that exist to confound and belittle those drifting through life and events.
While it is difficult to isolate any one text as purely Kafkaesque, many texts exist wherein the character is at the mercy of dark circumstances. Much of Haruki Murakami’s work, while not written entirely well, absconds the pressures of a restorative tale and instead identifies with the polemics of ambiguity. His Wind-Up Bird Chronicle achieves this by positing a seemingly innocent stream of events as inherently dark and fatefully mischievous, offering up a narrative that explores the mundane as inherently disconcerting. But it is his Kafka on the Shore, fittingly enough, that follows the narrator, a Japanese boy named Kafka, on a series of strange, oedipal journeys that eventually sees KFC’s Colonel Sanders in the role of a pimp, while a series of strange, Nietzschian circumstances take place, before the narrative offers no conclusive solution. Contrary to the existentialists, who posit a meaninglessness of existence, Kafka’s work, like Murukami’s, offers the reader a kind of fateful encounter that is at once bewildering and dark, but in no sense fulfilling or restorative.
The work of Thomas Pynchon, moreover, has similar ties to the Kafkaesque element though is somewhat restrained by its Nabokovian dark, sardonic humour. Nevertheless Pynchon writes the unfinished work of Kafka, focusing on impenetrable, exterior forces, that which the characters cannot contend with nor even comprehend. Normality is rarely restored and the world remains ambiguous and incomprehensible. His Gravity’s Rainbow, his most obscure yet imaginatively daring work to date, features a very lengthy, complex plot which includes strange and arcane premises, one of which is the detonation of V2 rockets at the locations of a character’s numerous sexual conquests, as well as a conspiracy surrounding the mysterious Schwarzgerät device. Like Kafka, Pynchon explores the inexpressible, the unsayable, what one might understand as an aporia, by which both authors reflect on issues surrounding sovereignty and power and the mysterious, impenetrable element therein.
The Kafkaesque element is indeed imitatable and widely replicated; Mark Crick’s Kafka’s Soup shows the author’s brilliant knack for literary ventriloquism, positing K. in a characteristic surreal environment in which he has to cook Miso soup for uninvited guests, that doubles as a legitimate recipe for soup:
When the soup was simmering, K. cut the tofu into one-centimetre cubes and dropped it into the steaming pan with the mushrooms and wakame. Looking out of the window and into the darkness he noticed that a girl was watching from the neighbouring house. The girl’s severe expression was not unattractive to K., but the thought that she was deriving some pleasure from his situation sent him into a fury and he struck the worktop with his fist.
Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz too employ the Kafkaesque in their Kafka Americana (1999), in which the authors re-imagine Kafka and his stories in alternate universes, including turning Kafka into a Hollywood screenwriter in ‘Receding Horizon’ and parodying The Trial in ‘K. for Fake’. But it is Kafkaesque: Stories inspired by Franz Kafka (2011) edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, that shows the extent to which the nightmarish quality of Kafka’s work has permeated into other fiction. Some of the famous writers submitting their Kafka-inspired fiction include J.G. Ballard, Philip Roth, comic artist Robert Crumb and the always delightfully surreal Jorge Luis Borges, whose Collected Fictions (Labyrinths) is greatly on par with Kafka’s ability to weave newer, darker realities.
As Kessel and Kelly innovatively observe: ‘While the wide acceptance and understanding of the adjective Kafkaesque is evidence of Franz Kafka’s enduring influence on our culture, it is also a kind of prison in which the writer and his work are confined. It is, in essence, Kafkaesque.’ It is perhaps then unsurprising that Kafka himself found deep flaws rooted in his work that would lead him to request his manuscripts be burnt, calling his The Metamorphosis ‘imperfect almost to its marrow’. It is this imperfect quality of the work, then, and most ironically, that characterises the Kafkaesque element since, like so many of Kafka’s stories, we are left with the unfinished product, as though its ending is something fatefully unnecessary. Employing the Kafkaesque element thus requires this open-ended or confined quality that is so integral to producing the effect which the Kafkaesque embodies.