At the end of summer 2007, which in Vancouver was unusually dark and dreary, the CBC online news feed reported that a man’s right foot, somewhat decomposed and still in its size 12 shoe, had washed ashore at Jedediah Island, B.C., in the Strait of Georgia. In the same week another man’s right foot—also decomposed, also lodged in a size 12 shoe and unrelated to the Jedediah foot—fetched up on the beach at Gabriola, another island in the strait. Both feet had “separated naturally” from their bodies during decomposition; some “baffled” authorities concluded that the men had died in plane or boating accidents. The adjective that popped into my head on reading the story was kafkaesque, maybe because I had been reading Kafka, written by David Zane Mairowitz and drawn by Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics), and Paper Trail by Arleen Paré (NeWest Press), in which Kafka is invoked.
Paré’s book is a blend of memoir, poetry and magic realism in which the unnamed narrator, having decided to retire early, struggles through her last 206 work days as a middle manager in an insidious corporate environment. To survive the countdown, she meditates on the work ethic she inherited from her monolithic breadwinner father: “Selling soap. Selling machines. Selling dances. Selling wax. Selling. Anything.” And she gulps tea and Anacin. And she counts: “steps from the underground parkade / to the elevator / faces around a meeting table / reports on my desk / tiles on the women’s washroom floor / dollars assigned to my outcome plan . . .” Then she finds Franz Kafka skulking around the office and persuades him to “write me out of here,” and Franz K produces the story of Frances K, a nine-to-five lifer whose fingers, toes and other bits have begun to fall off. It’s anyone’s guess who is whose alter ego.
Mairowitz and Crumb’s Kafka, meanwhile, opens with a horrifying drawing of one of Franz K’s many grisly fantasies of his own death—a pork butcher’s cleaver hacking off neat slices from his head. Then on we go with Kafka’s life, told through the stories he wrote, interspersed with biographical and historical notes. Kafka hated himself and his body; he suffered from migraines, anxiety, depression, insomnia, phobias, tuberculosis and boils. Crumb, a fellow self-loather, offers perfectly complementary drawings: dark, heavy, technically brilliant—and funny. As Mairowitz points out, the adjective kafkaesque is “irrevocably tied to fantasies of doom and gloom, ignoring the intricate Jewish joke that weaves itself through the bulk of Kafka’s work.” Arleen Paré gets the humour part, and she deploys it subtly and well in the story of her narrator’s last deadening days— “One memo begins: We are moving forward . . . in a cultural shift toward continuing advancement developing a dynamic work environment (someone has to write this—must be Jean) with proactive and visionary leadership which emphasizes renewal, choice . . .”—and in the parallel universe in which Frances K’s small body parts drop away ( “separate naturally”?). Our narrator comprehends both Franz K and Frances K in all their complexity, and she even likes them. But she’d prefer to keep all her bits, thank you, and she isn’t going to disappear into herself in sickness and fear. To happen to be reading Paper Trail and Kafka at a time when two similar but unrelated feet come to rest a few days and a few kilometres apart, is to understand why Kafka, and kafkaesque, never go out of style.