Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cheerful Nightmare: Kafka's Amerika

Real Godbout's adaptation of Franz Kafka's unfinished novel Amerika is very much unlike that of the famous author in terms of tone. That is, the anonymous gloom that usually pervades Kafka's work, complete with shadowy bureaucracies and the individual's eventual doom in trying to overcome the arbitrary nature of authority is notably absent here. Instead, Karl, a fresh-faced European young man who gets sent to America involuntarily after getting a maid pregnant, is immediately presented with the sort of magical good fortune that many imagined America gives to its hard-working immigrants. Though Kafka never visited the US, the "land of opportunity" and "rugged individual" narratives certainly carried over to foreign shores. So even though disaster quickly and persistently strikes in this story, Karl's optimism never wanes and the vision of America as a sort of giant traveling circus stays on the surface.

Of course, the book really reveals a Kafka nightmare as a sort of cartoon, when in which there's always an escape hatch into the next dubious episode of American adventure. Kafka's satire of the American dream of sudden and unearned prosperity as one marked in reality by exploitation, poverty and degradation is over the top and at times absurd, which is no doubt how he thought of America in general. Karl is a great character because he's a lampoon of the rugged individual, only he doesn't really know what he's doing. His intuition is faulty, his principles shift and are frequently betrayed. He finds that the system's rules in America are arbitrary and change on a whim.

This book is kind of a Bizarro Charles Dickens character, only in reverse. It's an episodic series of encounters with colorful and frequently seedy characters, with call-backs at crucial points in the narrative. Karl's corporate uncle, who plucks him off the boat he arrives in, at first seems to be a benign sort of deus ex machina of a character who immediately provides Karl with a life of easy wealth and luxury. When his arbitrary rules are disobeyed, he kicks out Karl permanently. Karl escapes a mansion wherein unsavory sexual acts were expected of him, only to run across caricatures of rough-hewn American immigrants (a Frenchman and an Irishman) who are far from the salt of the earth. They are as untrustworthy as anyone else, only in a more blunt and brutish fashion.

From there, the story starts to grow increasingly stranger and more absurd. More inexplicable kindness showed toward him is viewed with some suspicion because it's from women, whom he now distrusts as a matter of course after getting a woman pregnant. All-American efforts at "improvement" and hard work pretty much get him nowhere and eventually embroiled in a fiasco that gets him fired. When he winds up being a hand-servant to an obese, retired opera singer, that particular episode ends rather grimly, as she's taken to an "experimental center" in exchange for money given to him. It's implied that she will be vivisected in some way or other, all for science. The book ends abruptly, and yet fittingly, as he becomes a member of the vaguely-defined "Grand Nature Theater of Oklahoma". Is it a religion? A cult? A wild west metaphor? It's never quite determined just what they do or why, but investing in this kind of shady outfit would seem to be the American Way. Especially since good old hard work didn't seem to help.

The book reads like Kafka put every crackpot story or notion he had ever heard about America into one sprawling epic. Whether one is served up a dream or nightmare is almost arbitrary, and in some ways, crueler than the treatment his other characters tend to get. Most of Kafka's characters tend to understand that they're doomed no matter what. In Amerika, poor Karl never quite knows whether he's coming or going. At least he's bought into the delusion and myth and understands that lying, making up one's identity on the spot and generally morally dubious behavior is often a way to get ahead where opportunity (and opportunists) are frequently a step or two ahead of the law. Godbout's cartooning is perfectly in tune with the spirit of the book, It's clear, vivid and slightly cartoony, with just a touch of exaggeration. Characters like a hotel detective are given craggy appearances and the same sort of distorted features that Dickens might have described for one of his characters, one where a reader can take one look at a character and know everything about them. The book frequently drags, and there was plenty that could have been jettisoned, but it's hard to argue pacing with a book that was unfinished. It's fascinating to see an entirely different style of writing from Kafka, even if the underlying themes are the same.

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