Sunday, January 5, 2014

December Reading (Part 2)

Here's what I read in December (Part two of two)
(Numbering continues from part one.)

4. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I realized with a start that my students were not doing enough outside reading for their world lit class, and I had a crisis about what to assign them, so I had them all read The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. The benefits were obvious: It's short, there were dozens of copies of the story in the school, it's a text they will definitely encounter in college, and it was written by a Jew from the "other European" country of Czechloslovakia.

But I later realized that I would actually have to discuss it with my students, who would be asking questions about why I assigned them such a bizarre, difficult text.

And The Metamorphosis is a difficult text. Though I'd read it many times, I still had no idea what the hell it meant. Gregor's transformation is terrifyingly literal--it's not a hallucination or some mamby-pamby allegory. Dude becomes a bug. The symbolism is laid on pretty heavy, but there's no obvious interpretation for it. My original idea to teach this as an example of existentialism seemed sound, but the  more I got into my lecture on existentialism, the more I realized that it only explained one side of the text.

After thinking about the text for a long while, I came up with a new theory about what this text is about. It's capitalism. The Metamorphosis is about the crushing, dehumanizing effects of capitalism on poor Gregor. We know that he toils in an unsatsifying position as a traveling salesman to support his family, and his transformation into a vermin represents the cumulative effect of working oneself to death, "the toruture of traveling, worry about changin trains, eating miserable food...constantly seeing new faces, no relationship that last or get more intimate." Gregor is suffering from what Marx would call an "alienation of labor," and Kafka's work is so memorable because it personalizes the effects a terrible and all-consuming job can have on a sensitive human being.

The real problem of Gregor turning into an enormous insect is the immediate conflict in the book, but soon the economic woes of his family become more pressing. Gregor's hideous presence becomes a secondary (and occasionally funny!) annoyance to them. The Samsas dismiss their housekeeper. His father goes back to work and experiences a metamorphosis of his own, as he remembers the thrill of making money. Grete goes back to work herself. Three dormers move into the home, and their comfort and satisfaction becomes the most important concern to the family.

In the end, Gregor's lingering presence disrupts everything. The borders storm out, the father wounds Gregor, and even his sister turns on him. ("It has to go," she says. "That's the only answer.") And then, mercifully for all, Gregor dies.

But his death is not tragic, or even particularly meaningful. It happens in the spring, and the family goes out into the warm sunshine, looking forward to the future. The old burden of Gregor is forgotten, and Mr. and Mrs. Samsa turn their attention to notice how lively Grette has become, and how she's ripe for marriage. Thus, the final thoughts of the novella boil down to the notion that Grette, with her "young body," is ready to make the family some real money.

5. The Broadcast by Eric Hobbs and Noel Tuazon

I know next to nothing about graphic novels. I quit collecting really bad comic books when I was about 15, long before I had even heard the term "graphic novel." The few encounters I've had with them always turn out the same: they look really cool, but are tedious to read.

That holds true for The Broadcast, which I first encountered doing research for a blog post I wrote about Orson Wells's The War of the Worlds. The graphic novel tells the story of a small Indiana community on the night of the titular broadcast. In this town, a storm knocks out the power just as Wells's story is getting going, and the townsfolk are left to fend for themselves in the face of what they perceive to be an alien invasion.

It's got a little bit of Night of the Living Dead in it, as well as some of the hysteria of that Twilight Zone episode, "The Shelter." But in the end, this story doesn't have much to do with The War of the Worlds, or Orson Wells. It's just a slightly tedious story told in words and scratchy black-and-white drawings. I'd call it average, but I'm not sure what an average graphic novel looks like.

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