Monday, 10 January 2011

Letters from America

"When you gooooo, will you send baaaaack, a letter frooom Americaaa?"
No, today's post has nothing to do with bespectacled Scottish icons The Proclaimers, but the theme today is definitely stateside.  I'm not a big reader of American literature, or even books set in the US, so I've read surprisingly little that other bloggers (or, at least, many American bloggers) would take for granted.  I only have about ten books by American authors lining my bookshelves, and Kerouac's On The Road is the most recent, so while I'm not ready to commit myself heavily, I may attempt to rectify that a little this year.

Then again, I may not.  We'll see :)

The first book in this mini-challenge is a book whose name I have continually stumbled across in recent months, Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.  As the name suggests, the book contains three separate stories which, as well as being thematically linked, are eventually shown to comprise one whole story.  In City Of Glass, a writer receives a call asking for a detective named Paul Auster, and his decision to assume this identity and take on a case leads to a breakdown in his routine existence, causing him to question his life and the way he lives it.  The second story, Ghosts, is a shorter detective story, where Blue is hired by White to spy on Black (and from there, it gets even more confusing...).  The third part of the trilogy is The Locked Room, and in this story the writer (who may or may not be Auster) attempts to find an old friend who has disappeared, leaving him in charge of his legacy - and his wife.

I was a little nervous about whether or not I'd enjoy this book, but from the first page I sensed that this was my kind of writing.  The idea of an ordinary man catapulted into extraordinary occurrences is very reminiscent of Murakami, and the way in which Quinn, the protagonist of City of Glass, is pulled deeper into a bizarre case, unable to give up something which he shouldn't really be doing anyway, could come straight out of Kafka.  Even Quinn's meeting with the author Paul Auster was familiar, reminding me of a certain Hiraku Makimura from Dance Dance Dance...

By the middle of the third story, I was starting to get a little restless, as the parts were all really too similar for a collection of just three stories; however, Auster pulled it all together by revealing that the three stories were actually linked (sometimes it's good to know nothing about an author or his books!), and the finished article was a very satisfying read.

In some ways, it was a little scary to see how close we actually are to falling off the edge of our lives.  Auster's characters are prompted to make a slight alteration in direction by external events, and before they know it, they have abandoned their jobs, their homes and their way of life.  Of course, you could look at it in a different light; the ties we think bind us to our lives are mostly arbitrary and more easily severed than we believe.  An interesting viewpoint, and a very interesting book - more of Auster to come this year, I'm sure.

The quote I started today's post with is actually more apt for the second of today's reads than for the first, coming as it does from a song about emigration.  Franz Kafka's Amerika (I could translate the title, but then I'd have to bludgeon you to death with a copy of A Suitable Boy) follows 'German' emigrant Karl Roßmann on his voyage of discovery through early-twentieth century America.  An earlier novel than some of his more famous works (e.g. The Trial, The Metamorphosis), Amerika is a little more straight forward than expected but still contains enough of his trademark style to be recognisable as a Kafka work.

We meet the seventeen-year-old Roßmann on board a ship about to dock in New York, staring at the Statue of Liberty.  Sent abroad by his parents to avoid the scandal of his illicit (unwanted) liaison with a maid, Karl is left to his own devices, abandoned to make his own way in the 'Land der unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten' (land of unlimited possibilities - a common German cliché used about America), and the story consists of his repeated efforts to establish himself, followed by failure and a subsequent descent in social standing.

Amerika is a sort of Bildungsroman, just in reverse; Karl never really manages to get on, despite his best efforts, and is dragged down by a couple of unsavoury characters.  The duo of Delamarche, a Frenchman, and the Irish Robinson take advantage of Karl's good nature and innocence in a way which reminded me of how Fagin and The Artful Dodger attempted to corrupt Oliver Twist.  According to Kafka's (English) Wikipedia page, this idea was not as fanciful as it first appeared, as Kafka described Amerika as his attempt at a Dickens-style novel.

As mentioned above, the usual Kafka themes and style are evident.  Karl frequently has to defend himself against unfair accusations from figures of power, launching the usual complicated and lengthy Kafka-esque monologues pleading his case, with little chance of success.  The characters swing quickly in their moods towards each other, strangers becoming close friends (and then sworn enemies) in a matter of minutes, and Karl gets caught up in the affairs of the people he meets, in spite of his lengthy internal promises to the contrary.  Business as usual in a Kafka novel.

Sadly, there's one more thing Amerika has in common with Kafka's other novels, and that is that the story is, unfortunately, unfinished.  There is a huge section missing before the last chapter, which is itself incomplete, a frustration for the reader, but something which we shouldn't complain too much about.  You see, after Kafka's untimely death, he instructed his executor, editor and close friend Max Brod, to destroy all his unpublished materials, and it is due entirely to Brod's decision to ignore this instruction that we are able to read any of his novels at all...

To finish today, I'd just like to tie the two books together a little more tightly.  As well as the setting, there are several parallels, with Auster being influenced a little by Kafka in the sense of his characters' seemingly being unable to free themselves from a nightmare scenario.  And what is the plot for The Locked Room?  A man is instructed to deal with the literary legacy of a writer friend after his (apparent) death.  Now if that's not a Kafka allusion, I don't know what is...