“Well done, Smiley, we just did this book a few years ago, though.”
—David LaBounty, of The First Line literary journal, on their closing essay on a Favorite First Line, my submission below:
from: Smiley McGrouchpants
to: TFL Submission
date: Thu, Sep 10, 2015 at 11:06 PM
subject: Favorite First Line submission, Winter 2015 issue
Hello! For this essay, I’ve decided to write about a story by the author David Lynch once said was “the one artist that I feel could be my brother”; the one who occasions a joke in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where the critics, after claiming that Archimboldi is the “greatest German writer of the 20th century,” have to immediately backtrack and say, “the second greatest, of course, the second greatest”; who is, arguably, the only author equally beloved by comic-book nerds
and sci-fi geeks and Ivy League university dissertation writers.
(And, yes … it’s that story!)
No more hints.
Kafka On the Ceiling
by Smiley McGrouchpants
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”—from Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (1915; trans. Willa & Edwin Muir)
With this classic opening sentence, ably caught by the Muirs, we get the full effect of Kafka’s “You. Are. There.” Genius: immersed in the scene, like a train pulling up to the stop, which we board, we find ourselves identifying with the protagonist. Regardless.
“He found himself” —yes, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? “Uneasy dreams” —similarly. “A gigantic insect” —well, you know how it goes.
This dry tone of illustration — and its successful maintenance, no small feat — is what people mean when they say “Kafkaesque.” (A term that may have originated with Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. But, what do I know. Maybe he heard it at Columbia.) When there’s no room to avoid the mundane details, the mundane details become vibrant, teeming with life: hence the “guy turning into a cockroach” device.
To take each equally seriously requires a tightrope-walker’s skill — hence, the “I can’t believe I’m taking this seriously / I can believe I’m taking this seriously” duality-of-the-mental-sphere reading Kafka invokes. You can’t get at the tragedy of the modern human condition without overstating it enough to make zooming in the telling, functional details worthwhile, it would appear.
Witness: “What a fate, to be condemned to work for the firm where the smallest omission at once gave rise to the gravest suspicion.” Who doesn’t know what that’s like? Or, at least couldn’t fathom that that could be the case, for someone out there.
And yet . . . and yet, there is a bit of the petulant whining that hints at the story’s penultimate shock: Gregor, it turns out, was a burden on his family, prone to poor judgment and fantasizing about being his younger sister’s savior. Alerted to this by the necessity of Gregor’s reaching a point of inextricably, physically-manifest “stuckness” — read: the logical conclusion for anyone who secretly harbored a desire to really, honestly “call in sick” — the transformations wrought by the family members, none done willingly, turn out to be more fruitful and rewarding than the continuation of their “now a giant insect and useless if not scary” eldest-child-and-breadwinner’s schema.
“They fulfilled to the uttermost all that the world demands of poor people, the father fetched breakfast for the small clerks in the banks, the mother devoted her energies to making underwear for strangers, the sister trotted to and from behind the counter at the behest of customers, but more than this they had not the strength to do.” This, of course, is the first forward thrust into re-engagement with the world; like it or not, they have no recourse to be beholden to the eldest-born brother. Changes start with an unwanted shift.
And the too-tired-to-get-out-of-bed-today, why-not-hit-the-SNOOZE-button household member? Here’s what he has to say: “Truly, this was not the father he had imagined to himself; admittedly he had been too absorbed of late in his new recreation of crawling over the ceiling to take the same interest as before in what was happening elsewhere in the flat, and he ought really to be prepared for some changes.” Too late, Gregor!
Somehow, it all makes sense.