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Book Review: Kafkaesque, Edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly

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Definition of KAFKAESQUE (Merriam-Webster): of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.

Kafkaesque, an anthology edited by award-winning authors John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, is set for release in November 2011 by Tachyon Publications.

Readers do not need to know or adore Kafka to pick up this work. Many have heard of The Metamorphosis, a goosebump-inducing story about a man who turns into a cockroach. Others may reference In the Penal Colony or A Report to an Academy without being able to recall the author’s name.

Kafka’s genius resides in the feelings his works evoke, a pervasive, memorable surrealism that sinks in one’s marrow when taken in large doses or a casual read.

Kafkesque strives to honor his life as much as his posthumous literary fame. Those confused, unfamiliar, or disgusted with his stories (Kafka included) will still find numerous gems within this anthology worth reading, quoting, and thinking about far after the stories are done and the book is closed. 

Kelly and Kessel begin Kafkaesque by introducing the reader with one of Kafka’s own stories, “A Hunger Artist.” This helps acquaint the reader to the brilliant ill-at-ease churning somewhere in the gut as one heads into Kafka’s dystopic worlds, gains glimpses into the bizarre minds of his usually nameless protagonists, and tries to understand their motivations.

The short story authors also individually reflect on their connection and fascination with Kafka, imbuing their work with further depth and a meaningful foundation readers can take into consideration when digesting each piece.

Personal favorites from this collection include J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned Giant,” an eerie take of Kafka-meets-Gulliver’s Travels; Terry Bisson’s The Cockroach Hat,” a quick read that glosses over details while providing a full, hilarious tale; Paul Di Filippo’s “The Jackdaw’s Last Case,” Kafka as a masked, cawing superhero; and T.C. Boyle’s The Big Garage, topping every driver’s worse repair shop story when the main character’s car breaks down along with his patience.

Kafkaesque features an artistic interpretation as well with an illustrated version of A Hunger Artist by legendary cartoonist R. Crumb (Fritz the Cat). 

Kafkaesque spans many genres — suspense, mystery, horror, politics, fantasy, and science fiction. You will thumb through it, dog-ear corners, scribble notes in the margins, inevitably highlight/underline particularly nice passages, and lend it to your friends.

Ironically, Kafka’s hunger artist yearned for the audience’s admiration, even while he spurned them. Similarly, Kafkaesque will leave one starving for more, but for us, it is available. His emaciated character states, “I have to go hungry, I can’t do anything else.”

We are fortunate in our alternative. We can indulge in this anthology and discover new writers emerging from Kafka’s influence.

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