Review: Kafkaesque by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly

Title: Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka
Editors: John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly
Publisher: Tachyon (November 2011)
ISBN: 978-1616960490


Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka is a smart and provocative anthology that celebrates Franz Kafka through a variety of stories that derive from Kafka’s work, stories that use Franz Kafka as a character, and stories that use the methods or materials of Kafka. Through their careful selection of stories, Kelly and Kessel have succeeded in crafting a Kafkaesque literary experience of their own, which nicely accentuates Kafka’s work without defining it. A very Kafkaesque act!

It seems especially fitting that Kafka’s short story “The Hunger Artist” was chosen by Kelly and Kessel as the flagship piece for the collection. In the Editors’ Notes section, Kelly comments that “The Hunger Artist” is “a story that twists and squirms as it resists interpretation.” One of the most striking aspects of Kafka’s work is that his fiction can be read through a variety of lens, inspiring a different meaning or interpretation for each piece depending on the lens being used. It is for this reason that “The Hunger Artist” seems particularly appropriate for this anthology.

For example, as the hunger artist comes to realize the growing apathy of the crowds for his accomplishments, the narrator says, “Try to explain the art of hunger! Those who don’t feel it can’t be made to understand.” This line is the exclamation point for the story, and from it the argument can be made that “The Hunger Artist” is an allegory that contrasts the lean times against the opulent times of plenty where sympathetic understanding and respect for those who suffer has been lost by those who don’t feel the pangs of suffering. And yet, like all of Kafka’s stories, “The Hunger Artist” squirms away from this interpretation, creating a dozen more interpretations that could also fit this piece.

Each story within Kafkaesque offers something new, interesting and very Franz Kafka. The quality of the collection is superb and will provide hours of mind-boggling reading  enjoyment. However, it could just as easily be used in the classroom as a contemporary literary companion to Kafka’s original material since, like Kafka’s own work, many of the pieces within Kafkaesque also defy interpretation.

Whether you are trying to understand the art of hunger, out to view a beached giant, or looking for Franz Kafka himself, you are sure to find many pieces in Kafkaesque that will stick with you.

  • Introduction: Stories After Kafka
  • Kafka Chronology
  • A Hunger Artist – Franz Kafka
  • The Downed Giant – J.G. Ballard
  • The Cockroach Hat – Terry Bisson
  • Hymenoptera – Michael Blumlein
  • The Lottery in Babylon (tr. Hurley) – Jorge Luis Borges
  • The Big Garage – T. Coraghessan Boyle
  • The Jackdaw’s Last Case – Paul Di Filippo
  • Report to the Men’s Club – Carol Emshwiller
  • Bright Morning – Jeffrey Ford
  • The Rapid Advance of Sorrow – Theodora Goss
  • Stable Strategies for Middle Management – Eileen Gunn
  • The Handler – Damon Knight
  • Receding Horizon – Johnathan Lethem – Carter Scholz
  • A Hunger Artist – David Mairowitz and Robert Crumb (a graphic story)
  • “I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting”; or, Looking at Kafka – Philip Roth
  • The 57th Franz Kafka – Rudy Rucker
  • The Amount to Carry – Carter Scholz
  • Kafka in Brontëland – Tamar Yellin

About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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4 Responses to Review: Kafkaesque by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly

  1. Pingback: From Kafka to Laurel and Hardy « Flickr Comments by FrizzText

  2. I am flailing in excitement over here! I think I was the only kid in his English class that loved the Kafka unit, so seeing this book inspired by him/his writings makes my little nerd heart happy. And what an awesome line up of contributing authors!!!


    • I was a late Kafka convert. Love his work!

      One of my favorite pieces in this anthology is the piece by Jeffrey Ford. When I got to the end I just grinned and said to myself, “Of course, that’s how it ends!” It was a very Kafka anthology. I think you’ll like it a lot.

  3. Jody says:

    That’s a sharp way of thikinng about it.

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