Jul/Aug 2016 Reviews & Interviews

Kafka in Richmond

Kafka in Richmond
By Gilbert Wesley Purdy.
The Virtual Vanaprastha. 2016. 246 pp.
ISBN 978-0-69274-191-7.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Internet, on the other hand, was like living in a continuous dream. When he had predicted the "frictionless thinking machine" he could not have begun to imagine all it would entail. The world it had created was unimaginable. It had no context—could have no context at all. —Kafka In Richmond

Buy now from Amazon! The power had gone out yet again, this time for the entire Greater Richmond Area and Central Virginia. Our tiny fragment of the electrical grid is almost always among the last to be restored. It looked like I would have some extra time on my hands. No work would be possible on any manuscript without power for the word processor. Nothing could be researched beyond the boundaries of my (admittedly substantial) hard copy library, or, within those boundaries, without the sunlight through the window for a reading lamp.

One of the too many books in stacks around my chair, waiting patiently with a bookmark marking the page where I had last left off, was a slim study of "Ricardian Poetry" of the 14th century. I'd begun reading the book, a month before, after the fashion of Don Quixote embarking on a chivalric quest such as no longer existed accept in the imagination. For better or worse, time refused to take "no" for an answer in order to allow me to read the book without interruption.

Without computers and clocks, the world does almost stand still, and, if it weren't for the bookmark also in Tillyard's classic study of The English Epic and Its Background, I would surely have finished the study of Ricardian poetry. The Tillyard at least is finished. Richard III's poets have been advanced, but another power outage may be necessary before the book is entirely read.

Before the outage, I had been hard at work wrapping up the final details of my new novel Kafka in Richmond: copyright, ISBN, cover design, Facebook page, etc. There could be nothing of Richardian poetry in a popular novel, and I may have taken undue risks even to mention Kierkegaard and Dostoyevski (both favorites of Kafka). Being a contemporary novel, most of Kafka's reading, while he was among us, might be expected to involved the Internet. It is difficult to imagine him spending any time with us without the Internet being a feature of his experience.

Imagine waking up 100 years out of one's own time, with cars speeding past and video streams transmitting everywhere one looks. Presidential primaries are underway. Arabs are paddling small boats through their suddenly inundated desert countries. Californians are fighting drought and wildfire. The poor and disabled of Richmond are panhandling on the street corners. Mass shootings and terrorist attacks supply intensely dramatic moments. This is the world in which Kafka suddenly finds himself upon waking from a nap. The year is 2015. The place is Richmond, Virginia.

I spend a lot of time watching the world through the Internet while at work on one or another writing project. Too often the drama there captures my attention for most or all of a day. The world is a fascinating and a harrowing place and the multifaceted eye we now possess allows us to see and hear more of it. It really is remarkable if we stop to think of it. But aren't we too busy to stop and think?

It seemed such a waste to gather up the many observations one cannot help but make through this multifaceted eye and shape them into yet another addition to the endless essays and articles on the subject. At the same time, I could not imagine a better plot for a contemporary popular novel than to follow Franz Kafka as he is introduced to what has become our way of life. The only person who might be more surprised and disconcerted than he might be the reader.

If you have read Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World or Zamyatin's We, you are familiar with the "near future" science-fiction genre. Perhaps the best known offering from the genre is Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was made into the movie Blade Runner.

It is only a small step further to introduce "present day" science-fiction. That we are the first generations to live in a world in which science-fact has outstripped science-fiction seems to be a promising premise. At the same time, in the present day we all have skin in the game. The plot is not unwinding 50 years in the future. The uncomfortable facts are our facts. I had to accept from the beginning of the project that this was an unavoidable risk. The best hedge I had available was a sense of humor that a single test reader tells me fulfills its purpose well.

As much as I could only enjoy dallying in the 14th century, I was determined not to lose the contents of my freezer (yet again). I organized a calling campaign to the power company offices. We all were only allowed to report the continuing outage to a computer generated voice as the human representatives were overwhelmed by the volume of calls from every corner of the state. My theory was that the computer readout of complaints would show a spike of calls from an area the crews thought power was already long restored. This might provoke them to investigate.

Sure enough, the next morning I spotted a young guy in a yellow vest and hard hat walking along our little side street looking high and low for something. I ran him down before he could get away and told him that I could point out the blown transformer he was looking for. As he peered up into the trees I recited the history of our sometimes being forgotten for days on end. Excuses were made, of course, but none that kept food frozen.

Still, it was nearly 24 hours before a repair truck showed up. Again I had to jump up and point out the location of the transformer. The single operator looked in no mood for conversation. As it was, I had no wish to waste valuable time that could be put toward getting the power back on.

Fifteen minutes later life was returned to near-normal. My recovered capabilities needed to be put toward doing book reviews for Eclectica first. I was already behind schedule. As I wrote them, the upcoming Brexit vote, and now the aftermath of the vote, were all in the news. Since the vote, threats of violence against perceived "outsiders," in Britain, have sharply spiked. I found myself wishing that Kafka had remained in Arthur's apartment long enough to give his thoughts on the situation. But that was not to be.

Oh well, there was plenty of material for observation and adventures before he decamped. Perhaps it will interest you to find out just what.


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