Franz Kafka has (rather depressingly when you think about it) become something of a patron saint for modern living. His alienated writings of skewed social conventions and hallucinogenic persecution (that you feel somehow you might have deserved) deeply affects readers because there’s something primal in his narratives that resonates almost subliminally with the existential dread that comes with urban life. Considering the long shadow that Kafka casts over literature, it’s amazing how few of his stories he actually completed, with canonical works like The Trial tailing off when Kafka’s lost interest. The Metamorphosis, perhaps his most famous work, is unusual in that Kafka was actually able to finish the damn thing (albeit with an admittedly elliptical ending) even if the auteur of anxiety disparaged the story as “extremely repulsive” and “nauseating” (though admitting that he was “not unhappy with it”)
Waking up for work is never particularly pleasant but no matter how late or hungover you are when you finally jerk awake, spare a thought for Gregor Samsa: he’s not just late for work but he’s also inexplicably transformed into a gigantic insect overnight. This would be bothersome for anyone, but as a Kafka protagonist/victim, Gregor meekly accepts his change in physical circumstances with a placidity that borders on the masochistic. As the primary breadwinner for his parasitic and uncaring family, his transformation is a brutal vision of the literally dehumanising aspects of low level competitors in the rat race. The fact that it is him who is punished with transformation rather than the grasping family who lives off him, is of course grotesquely unfair, but ‘the good guy gets rewarded’ is so far down on Kafka’s list of artistic impulses that it’s smashed through the ground and is hovering somewhere in the earth’s core.
Characters in a Kafka story act with a kind of dream logic to the bizarre situations they are placed in and The Metamorphosis is no different. When Gregor does not unlock his door to go to work in the morning (namely because he’s now a monstrous insect stuck on its back) an inspector from his work appears nigh on immediately to examine his ‘illness’ with all the inevitability of a nightmare. Gregor’s family never question that the gigantic beetle currently occupying Gregor’s room is their mutant son (you’d think “maybe the hideous monster in the bedroom ate our son?” would be floated as a possibility before transubstantiation, but there you have it). If anything this rubbery logic increases the narcotised terror of Kafka’s narrative and adds a subtle note of farce which helps the pitch dark narrative breathe. It’s easy to be surprised by the sly humour that Kafka injects even into his darkest works, considering that the man’s modern reputation isn’t exactly that of the class clown. When Kafka first set down Metamorphosis in 1915, he delivered a tale that would encapsulate the neurosis of the new century. The fact that those concerns are still as valid as they were over one hundred years ago is both a sign of Kafka’s skill as a writer and of how little things have changed. Get yourself a copy and bug out.