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When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

This is one of the most famous opening lines of any story, not that I imagine had he lived to see it, its fame would provide any comfort to that master of shame and self-loathing Franz Kafka.

I always think of that line from Annie Hall “sex with you is a kafkaesque experience.[…] I mean that as a compliment”. Once featured as a punchline by that *other* king of neurosis, you knew the author had made it. Is it not appropriate that Kafka, so cleverly excising themes of personal failure enjoys a degree of celebrity that is entirely post-humous? What I enjoy most about his writing is the sly hints of a humour peeking through the quotidien miseries of his characters.

I previously had read The Castle, a book which filled me with a life-long fear of bureaucracy, only for me to become a bureaucrat; and Lettre au Père which gives some insight into Kafka’s relationship with his father, his resentment of authority expressed in his stories. Metamorphosis is another classic texts that for one reason or another I have avoided for years. Perhaps because of a fear of overfamiliarity. The story even featured in The Producers, one of my favourite films, as an off-hand joke.

This collection features a number of Kafka’s stories, many unpublished in his lifetime. In The Penal Colony is a ready example of the writer’s horror at the domination horror, with an ending that is pure grand guignol. The Aeroplanes At Brescia feels like an odd combination of a Proustian social situation drama and the advancing machine age, represented in literary terms by the Ballardian emphasis on the sensuality of objects. Proust, Ballard and Kafka – all writers whose legacy is so fixated on singular thematic concerns that their names have become descriptive terms.

Metamorphosis itself is exemplary of Kafka’s concerns. Gregor Samsa within moments of waking from his ‘troubled dreams‘ immediately begins to fret about his job prospects, the petty difficulties that fill his life and his responsibility to his family. As the chief earner for his elderly parents and young sister, a delicate seventeen-year-old who enjoys playing the violin and attending parties. Gregor, it is clear, is carrying his own family, surrendering up his earnings to them.

When he fails to emerge from his locked bedroom, his family’s anxiety grows. They demand he have his breakfast and take the early train to work. Gregor is a travelling salesman whose livelihood depends on commission. Then, disaster of disasters, the chief clerk of his firm arrives. With his parents now panicking, Gregor attempts to assure them that he is fine, but his voice is transformed into a series of bestial squeaks. When he finally emerges his boss flees in terror. Gregor is incapable of recognizing his own monstrosity, his attempts to calm the horrified members of his family and the clerk resemble a threatening advance.

What follows is a slow and painful descent into absolute helplessness. Gregor becomes completely dependent on their family, with all signs of his previous humanity completely vanished. Kafka brilliantly evokes a crippling sense of guilt on the part of his protagonist. His loss of power creates a vacuum in the family which his father quickly fills. This reversal of fortunes has a oddly quirky sense of humour about it. The contemporary sense of casual absurdism in science fiction no doubt owes a large debt to Kafka.

I was quite taken with the deliberate parlaying of unconscious desires and resentment in the author’s sentences. In total what emerges is a brilliantly structured fable of repression given full vent by some incomprehensible twist of fate.

Melbourne life was fine, if a little prosaic. It’s a big city but a small town, and having grown up here I couldn’t go to a bar or get a cup of coffee without running into someone I knew. It was a giant playground of everyone I’d ever met in my life, for better or worse. To find anonymity it was necessary to put a few oceans between us.

One summer I set out for Paris with my best mate, on a mission to put my lazy grasp of French to the test. It was also an opportunity to indulge my teenage fascination with all things French.

I had one goal though. To visit Shakespeare and Company, a legendary bookshop where the staff walked in off the street to accept an offer of bed and board in return for work. I was going to try and get myself a job there, or inveigle my way in with the penseurs who would meet in an upstairs room and debate philosophy and literature. I did go to Shakespeare and Company. I even found the room, with a group of people from around the world excitedly arguing in French about, well something or other (have I mentioned my French isn’t great?). I stood there for a moment, backed out and left.

I realized that my dreams of being an arty Parisian intellectual type were just that – dreams. I preferred the easy banter of my mates, the calming isolation in reading Dostoyevsky, or Camus, and knowing I did not have to justify my choice. Beneath all that there was a growing resentment for pretentiousness and the realization that life goes on outside the pages of a book.

Patrick O’Neil’s book is about how he drew inspiration for his adventures across the globe from the literary fiction of Franz Kafka, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Desperately concerned at the prospect of living a conventional life, he flees the suburbs of Melbourne on three seperate occasions during his twenties, leaving family, studies, work and relationships to wait for his return.

As the first third of the book is dedicated to Kafka, O’Neil heads off to Europe, landing in London after an exhausting trans-continental flight on a cheap airline. There he is put up by a friend in a ritzy apartment. Deciding that this degree of comfort is yet another ‘gilded cage’, he books a ticket on a ferry for Amsterdam. Arriving finally in the wee hours of the morning O’Neil realizes he is alone in a strange city, surrounded by drug addicts and prostitutes and should anything happen to him no one will even know to look for him there. He is catapulted into a night of paranoia and fear, much like something conjured up by the frenzied imagination of Kafka himself.

His subsequent adventures follow the same pattern. Disenchantment at home sends him free-wheeling across the globe chasing literary dragons. A new foreign land, the confusion that results from the language barrier and the skewed perception that follows ingesting psychedelics. He meets some fascinating characters off on their own mad adventures. O’Neil himself is marched back and forth across foreign borders, threatened by gun-toting criminals, arrested by corrupt South American cops on drugs charges and almost dies in a car-wreck. He faces the threat of death on several occasions, but seemingly the experience of living with a compulsive New York neurotic is the most spirit-crushing.

However, the experience of reading this memoir makes for a far more frustrating journey. O’Neil cheerfully describes himself as mad on one or two occasions, but a complete lack of common sense – coupled with a near-total degree of self-absorption – makes for a dreary narrative. It is like reading Walden and discovering the author was hanging out on a mate’s private estate.

The other issue is that the characters encountered by O’Neil seem a lot more interesting, such as a Belgian psytrance documentarian, or a Manhatannite  drag queen. Instead we have to contend with the narrator’s own half-baked ponderings. A de rigeur appearance of Carlos Castaneda during a peyote session was the personal low-point for me. He was a fraud who used the women attracted by his shamanic nonsense about Toltecs and disguised pure bunkum as wisdom.

The book’s muses – Kafka, Thompson and Kerouac – are imitated in an overly literal manner. Reading the book felt like sitting next to a teenager on a long-distance bus ride who’s read the CliffsNotes summaries.

Tired, dated and frustrating. First-world tourist pornography.

All passion in the end enslaves you, and if I felt in bondage to Bach and music at that time, it was because I still had doubts about my ability to make beautiful music each time I decided to play.

(taken from ‘bach (pau) in love’ by Subhas Jaireth)

I am sick and tired of hearing about the ‘death of the short story’. To my mind short fiction is in very rude health, having already colonised the virtual plains of the internet years before the lumbering novel woke up to the danger posed to the physical book by online writing. The e-book  represents an opportunity for poets and authors to be more radical, to present their ideas in a new, novel format that does not carry the same expectations as the physical novel.

Etchings, published by Ilura Press, is an excellent showcase for up-and-coming writers and artists. Like many anthologies it does not limit itself to a certain genre, but it also pieces on art, photography, interviews and book reviews. Seeing as the cover image for this issue is Adam Elliott‘s Mary and Max, I will lead off with Janelle Moran’s interview with the film-maker. It treats not only of Elliott’s career as a storyteller/animator/director (he pauses to query how exactly he should describe himself given his many roles), but of the processes involved in launching a career as an independent in today’s film industry, as well as his pride for Melbourne and its artistic reputation. The interview itself is a very insightful and enjoyable one, as the subject gives very generous material, explaining that he looks forward to interviews as a form of ‘free therapy’.

For the most part Etchings showcases poems and short fiction from a range of international authors. Subhas Jaireth’s tale, quoted from above, is a delicate and sensitive investigation of mortality and artistic legacy, with the life of Bach becoming a fascination for two men. Kafkaesque by Nora Nadjarian is itself both a pastiche of Franz Kafka’s paranoiac Freudian fiction, as well as a short mediatation on his literary legacy. I have always hated the adjective ‘kafkaesque’, which brings to mind a Robert Crumb drawing of tourists in Prague wearing t-shirts with a profile of Kafka on them. Yet Najarian’s choice of title is perfect:

The man said: Let me tell you this. I am the reincarnation of Franz Kafka.

I believed him because his ears were pointed and his voice was melancholy.

Simonne Michelle-Wells presents a story on body dismorphia, Catching the Drops, which explores not only the suffering caused by the condition, but the degrees of deceit routinely employed against family members. The story ends on a surprisingly surreal note more in common with horror fiction. It Could Have Been Any Party by Amelia Schmidt also mines tropes of body horror, reminiscent of Brian Yuzna’s Society, or William Gibson‘s The Belonging Kind.  Alice Godwin’s The Apothecary is more magic realism than horror, but excels at achieving a surreal sense of disturbance. Out of the stories on offer, Godwin’s is my pick of the bunch.

toy heart charnel house by Autumn Christian is both fantastical and melancholic, describing a family wracked by the suicide of a child in a futuristic setting. A process known as ‘reconstruction’, has been invented, designed to help the grieving process by rendering the personalities of the dead into a artificial body construct. This of course only introduces more problems:

One of my co-workers told me once that there’s this syndrome where people think members of their family are being replaced by impostors. It’s called Capgras syndrome. Ever since we started reconstructing people, the frequency has skyrocketed.

What does that mean.

It means nobody is really who we think they are, and we know it.

The poetry collected here is also notable for the delicate imagery on show. Kevin O’Cuinn’s Untitled #11 describes the creeping dischord that can enter into relationships, with little resentments building into a divide between partners. He ends a description of an uneasy night spent in bed with the image:

a today will

appear in the window

like an uninvited guest

Anthony Noack’s Milk is beautifully understated and unpretentious in its sense of wonder. It made my wife smile when I read it out, so thank you Mr Noack.

Etchings is an excellent series, a welcome showcase for some excellent writers and artists and comes strongly recommended. With thanks to Ilura Press for my review copy.

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