By Senior Contributing Editor, Andrew Ng, ’22
As part of Red Ink’s new series of reviews and criticism, I’m offering my brief thoughts on a few works of fiction I’ve read recently. More reviews—of music, art, food, literature, and other areas—will be coming soon from myself and other Red Ink contributors!
The Castle and The Metamorphosis:
People need to realize that Kafka is funny. Not Stephen Colbert or “The Office” in-your-face-this-is-humor funny, but satirical in his own way. Similar (though different at the same time) to Vonnegut’s dark humor. But people tend to recognize Vonnegut’s humor more than they do Kafka’s. The popular caricature of Kafka’s oeuvre is that his works are extremely dark, depressing, and sad. Which is true, but misses the larger picture. Just as Slaughterhouse-Five is intensely sad and satirical at the same time; just as Catch-22 ranges from laugh-out-loud humor to dark death; just as one laughs at Vladimir and Estragon’s comedic fate in Waiting for Godot while also finding it incredibly depressing; Kafka’s works are truly tragicomic. Reading The Castle or The Metamorphosis (or The Trial, for that matter), and not finding any humor, is missing out on Kafka. I laughed out loud at parts of Gregor Samsa’s struggle—he’s been transformed into a giant beetle, for goodness sakes! K.’s difficulties as a janitor in The Castle are similarly funny, while the constant and faricial tribulations of bureaucracy are darkly satirical as well. The picture Kafka paints of the modern world is bleak. But he uses humor to illustrate this bleakness, and it forms an integral part of the ‘Kafka-esque.’ Kafka’s surreal worlds wouldn’t feel so deeply and disconcertingly connected to our own if not for the satire embedded within them.
Invisible Man deserves to be considered a true “Great American Novel” contender. It has everything a great book should have: fantastic prose, a really interesting plot (that’s not to say the lack of a plot can’t work well—Waiting for Godot, which has literally no plot, is one of my favorite plays of all time), fascinating characters (Ellison’s depiction of our unnamed protagonist’s psyche is incredibly engaging and detailed), and ideas that make you really think. Invisible Man speaks far beyond a single narrative: it’s a bildungsroman, an existentialist meditation, and a vivid portrayal of race relations. It’s universal, while also uniquely American. The moment our invisible man steps into the absurd is where Ellison’s work becomes truly great. An underground room, first discovered upon falling down a manhole, now illuminated by 1,369 lightbulbs. Ras the Exhorter spear fighting policemen on horseback as Harlem burns around him. The entire narrative is tinged with absurdity, with union meetings resembling scenes out of Kafka. Our invisible man lives in a fictional world, but it’s our world at the same time. Harlem, Downtown, Long Island. References to Booker T. Washington. Mysterious communist organizations. We see America in the mirror, only it’s distorted a little. Distorted in a way that unsettles, illuminates, and makes Invisible Man a masterpiece.