We Cast a Shadow
Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel centers around an unnamed Black narrator and his biracial son, Nigel, for whom this father only wishes the best future. But how does a dad open doors for his son in a world that will damn a person for their skin color? Plus, Nigel has a dark birthmark on his face that’s spreading, causing his concerned father to attempt to get rid of it by any means necessary—and in this case, the means is a hugely expensive experimental treatment that will sap his son of his melanin, perhaps giving him the white-man edge. A satirical and menacing take on our deeply racist society, Ruffin strikes to the core of violence, love, and desperation.
Forgiving the Angel
This odd and wonderful story collection features real people from Kafka’s life. First, a story about Max Brod, the friend Kafka instructed to burn all his unpublished work after his death (Brod refused; he published Kafka’s work instead). Next, a story that’s masquerading as a lost Kafka piece. The third story deals with Kafka’s last love, a woman named Dora, and her marriage to another man who tries to distract her from her now-dead paramour. Lastly, we read about another of Kafka’s lovers and her time in a Nazi concentration camp, going through the hell there with a woman she meets and develops a relationship with. The stories not only traverse Europe’s history post-Kafka but also echo Kafka’s own imagery and sense of dread, despite all being love stories.
The Face of Another
If there were ever a contest for which book included the most superhero tropes gone dreadfully wrong, it would be The Face of Another. A scientist is terribly hurt in a lab accident (most superhero origin stories), and his face is so disfigured (Deadpool, anyone?) that he doesn’t actually have a face anymore. His wife’s disgust with him and his inability to move in the world cause him to search for a new face, one that’s so convincing no one would know it was a mask. It’s through finding this new face that he begins to become someone else—to embody this part of him with a personality entirely different from his own and far more cruel (now I’m thinking of Alan Moore’s Rorschach). But as much as this book may seem like a collection of tropes, it predates quite a few of them, and is far more disturbing in that it serves as a social criticism of Japan at the time, and of the masks we wear versus the selves we are. A strange and haunting read.
The Kafkaesque and the Orwellian have some commonalities. Winston is the poor sod at the center of George Orwell’s classic, written in 1948 and predicting a future that, thank goodness, didn’t come to pass in the year 1984. The world in this book has become three super-nations that are constantly at war with one another, switching allegiances seemingly randomly so that enemies may become allies overnight and vice versa. Big Brother is always watching in this world—Big Brother being the apparent dictator, or maybe just a symbol for the government—through omnipresent cameras that are constantly monitored. Thought policing is real, and people need to exercise doublethink in order to survive; that is, they must be able to hold two opposing concepts in their minds and reconcile them. In this world, Winston falls in love and begins to question everything, and that’s his first mistake. When Big Brother is always watching, you don’t question. You obey.
This dreamlike novel by British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro shares a similar premise with his later book, The Buried Giant: memory, or lack thereof. In The Unconsoled, the protagonist—a famous pianist—finds himself moving through spaces he doesn’t recognize. He arrives in an unfamiliar city in Europe with the knowledge that he must play a concert, but he doesn’t remember agreeing to it, or anything else about it. The pianist begins traveling through the surreal landscape he’s found himself in, trying to prepare for what may be an incredibly important concert: the most important of his career, or maybe even his life.
Written by a woman with dyslexia who didn’t learn to read or write until she was 14, Sally Gardner’s novel features a boy with a similar predicament. Standish Treadwell, who “can’t read or write” and so “isn’t very bright,” as the taunts go, is far more than he seems. Living in the Motherland, Treadwell can’t know what lies beyond the wall surrounding him. But when a soccer ball goes over the wall, so will the Motherland’s secrets. Treadwell and a friend gather their courage and pass the wall to find all the things beyond it that have been hidden from he Motherland’s denizens. Gardner’s unforgettable voice is haunting and strange as she takes her characters through short chapters that reveal more than you’d think so few words could.
The Radiance of the King
Clarence is a white man who has washed up on the shore of an unnamed African nation. In his outrage and self-importance, he demands to see the nation’s king, only to learn the king is nowhere nearby. So begins Clarence’s journey through a surreal landscape that lends itself to a magical realism reading. With another man and two boys, Clarence travels across the nation toward its southern end, where the king is said to be. He’s eventually sold as a slave to the king’s own harem, and when he finally meets the ruler, having been completely unmoored from his earlier prejudice, Clarence sees his own humanity in the king before him. Camara Laye’s classic of African literature holds up as strange and beautiful, both dehumanizing and making more human its main character.
If Franz Kafka were alive today, he’d be a little like his own bizarre characters: he’d be 136, an unobtainable age (so far). Born in Prague on July 3, 1883, Kafka went on to become one of the most well-known and studied writers today—though without his knowledge. After a rather lackluster career in insurance and asbestos, he died when he was only 40 years old, well before inspiring the phrase Kafkaesque.
According to Merriam-Webster, Kafkaesque (a favorite word of English departments) means “of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.”
July marks Kafka’s birthday, so we’re honoring him with a list of books that deserve the moniker Kafkaesque. He probably wouldn’t have appreciated it, but we appreciate him—so, tough.