Plugging the holes in a spotty education.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Bugsy, Alone

Take the Shame-Faced Admission™ that I’d never read any Franz Kafka – including “The Metamorphosis” – as a given. He made the top of the queue because of another Shame-Faced Admission™: other than Gregor Samsa awakening from unsettling dreams to find himself transformed into a cockroach, I knew nothing about Kafka’s masterpiece.

You’d think somebody would have said something. With a work of this renown, inklings of what happens next typically come from a range of sources. Jeopardy! questions, obscure references in Maureen Dowd columns, cocktail party mentions of that heartbreaking scene when Gregor loses his job as mascot for the Bratislava Bugs (Go, Fightin’ Chitin!) when the team discovers he’s not some method actor wearing a costume.

Nope. All I ever heard was Samsa, dreams, cockroach. It’s as if no one ever read past the famous opening sentence.

The surprises began early: Gregor doesn’t turn into a cockroach at all but “a monstrous vermin.” Earlier translations opted for “gigantic insect.” At one point, a minor character calls Gregor an “old dung beetle,” but take it from a native New Yorker – a dung beetle ain’t a cockroach. Kafka deliberately left the description vague, forcing the reader to envision Gregor’s new, repellent form. That decision only magnifies the profound feeling of alienation.

If an author of literary fiction were to tackle this story now, it would be preoccupied with matters of biology and pages would be devoted to the merging of human and insect consciousness. The depiction of the psychology of this hybrid creature – similar to Brundlefly, from the David Cronenberg remake of The Fly – would be the point of the exercise. But Kafka has no interest in such parlor tricks. Gregor remains sad, lonely Gregor even when he becomes a bug. It’s the kind of thing that only happens in dreams.

Which is fitting, as Kafka is peerless when it comes to recreating their logic. Gregor begins to fear that his *ahem* new look will make him late for work, and at that moment a clerk pounds on his door to find out why he’s tardy – before he’s tardy. It illustrates the true meaning of Kafkaesque; it’s not pointless absurdity but the sense of the inevitable laboring hand in hand with the unfathomable.

Gregor’s concerns about office politics when he clearly has bigger problems cut to the heart of what “The Metamorphosis” is about: the dehumanizing nature of work. (Gregor is in sales. From Kafka to Glengarry Glen Ross. Can we all agree that salesman is the worst gig known to man and insect?) He’d rather sacrifice his humanity than report to his job, mainly because he feels he’s sacrificed his humanity already. If you put the same choice to the lead character in Office Space, I know what he’d pick: scuttling in the dark and avoiding Roach Motels.

Kafka doesn’t just rail against work but any type of obligation, even family. The mother, father and sister that Gregor is supporting are the ones who are truly monstrous. He may be a human spirit trapped in the most loathsome of carapaces, but his kin possess the souls of insects, evidenced by their reaction to Gregor’s ultimate fate.

As for the other stories in this collection, some of them I didn’t get, like “The Judgment.” “A Hunger Artist” and “In the Penal Colony” are disquieting works that reflect on the artist’s relationship with the audience and the role of asceticism in creativity. At least, I think they do. None of them holds a candle to “The Metamorphosis,” which for now ranks as the most disturbing thing I’ve ever read. Unless you count some T. J. Hooker fan fiction I wrote when I was younger, and believe me, you don’t want to.


Blogger Bill said...

"Can we all agree that salesman is the worst gig known to man and insect?" It was e. e. cummings, I believe, who said "a salesman is an it that stinks." So he'd almost certainly agree.

6:38 AM

Anonymous Ms. Smartyboots said...

After reading The Metamorphoses and Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener in a college lit class, I've always wanted to see a crossover of Great Literary Impact where Gregor and good ol' Bart chat about obligations to their employment, etc.

Ms. Smartyboots,
returned from a long internetless "existence" and looking forward to catching up on the Shame-Faced train

8:53 AM


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