Thursday, October 23, 2014

Past the Watchman: Reading Kafka in the Neighborhood

In my monthly "Neighborhood Readings" Column, I plan to reckon with a difficult literary piece and a tension we face in our work, hopefully finding a worthwhile connection between the two.

While my wife had her early contractions, then later in the postpartum recovery room, I read a novel about a family whose father's ideology led them to participate in an experiment that divided and ruined them, and it got me thinking about Kafka.

Maybe it should have gotten me thinking about the neighborhood my newborn son, Jack, would meet when we returned home, with its crime and school and language complications, but my mind was blasting through the experience on a wave of adrenaline, so it took a few turns to get home. 

Ruthie and I would bring Jack into an unconventional life. We left careers in Chicago to move into a neighborhood of immigrants and refugees here in Atlanta, and we run an after-school program in partnership with young people who live here. 

Of course, we left all that to get to the hospital so that Jack could be born, and I brought a book with me to distract me when I needed distraction. The novel was Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The family at the center of the book adopts a chimp, ostensibly for scientific progress, although any progress made would certainly help the father's academic career.

I'm not giving much away by saying that bringing the lab chimp home makes an experiment of the whole family, and things go wrong. The aftermath is where the narrator begins.

Each part of the book begins with an epigram from Kafka's story "A Report for an Academy." The story is one of Kafka's funniest, most cutting pieces, a speech by an ape who, in captivity, cultivates a mastery of human speech and high culture, and finds himself alienated from his past by the journey.

Fowler's use of Kafka's story is, like many things Kafka touches, both flawlessly flat on the surface and inexpressibly deep and complicated.

I've always had trouble talking about Kafka because this is what he's like. There is a perfectly clean surface. A chimp is placed in a human world. But the connective tissue that forms between Fowler's and Kafka's stories would be almost impossible to map, and it would involve language, art, evolution, religion, and identity. Drawn as a web, it would look like a trapdoor spider's dense, conical lair.

We brought Jack home at the liveliest time of day, right as the sun was falling, when the kids were all out at the playground. Exhausted from sleepless nights at the hospital, feeling the drop of adrenaline that accompanied the relief of coming home, we wanted to sneak our baby inside and sleep.

They spotted us. Maria, Rogelio, Chicho, Leslie, and ten or twelve other kids ran to our car as we parked. Ruthie pulled the cover over the car seat. By the time we opened our doors to make the short walk to our apartment, they were clamoring to see him.

"Is that your baby?" "Can we see him?" "Can we hold him?"

"No. We need to get him inside so he can rest," I said, releasing the lock on his car seat and lifting it out. We rushed to our apartment door and collapsed inside. At the door, the kids shouted and knocked for a few minutes before returning to their soccer game. I waited until the hallway was clear, then crept back to the car to bring our bags in.

That evening, I pulled Kafka and a few commentators off the shelf. I went back to Kafka in the slivers of time between feedings, dishes, laundry, and work. I read several short stories, including "A Report for an Academy." I re-read David Foster Wallace's essay "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed," where I first encountered the idea of Kafka's writing as soulful. I read Thomas Mann's homage to Kafka, where he asserts that God is the subject of Kafka's work in what seems to me a bit of a stretch.

Whenever my soul comes under pressure, it seems like Kafka intersects me with a story that is both difficult to understand and a perfect statement of the tension. 

I've thought of Kafka's The Castle in relation to bureaucracy that we faced visiting undocumented neighbors in county and federal detention centers. I've thought of Gregor Samsa when I felt alienated from my family due to a mental illness and a temporary departure from their faith.

Now I have a son, and he's sleeping in room in an apartment in a complex known for drug activity and prostitutes and johns, where kids often grow up to go to jail. My friends have mostly moved to neighborhoods based on the quality of education their kids can have, the freedom from crime, the status that place lends to people who live there. We are living in a place based mostly on the throng of kids who are waiting for Jack to join them on the run-down playground outside.

No one has recommended that we move or give up our work. Most people have been supportive and, when unsure of our reasoning, roundabout with their worries. In a conversation about raising Jack in this neighborhood, a friend asked me what would happen if my son got a girl pregnant. A concerned supporter from a particularly Republican part of Florida sent us this recommendation, "Be flexible concerning your child but I encourage you to always do what is best for the child to  help him/her to grow up being a responsible, independent child.   When I say 'independent' I mean that the child will learn to depend only on Jesus Christ and not others or the government."

Generally, we seem to be getting away with it, and no one's come to revoke our living license and haul us back to the suburbs or Careerland.

Still, I ask myself what I imagine others want to ask me. And, while I'm thinking about this, I'm reading Kafka. And in the introduction to the 1993 Everyman's Library edition of Kafka's Collected Stories, editor Gabriel Josipovici quotes this fragment, which Max Brod didn’t deem worth of publication in any collection:

I ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back again and said to the watchman: 'I ran through here while you were looking the other way.' The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. 'I suppose I really oughtn't to have done it,' I said. The watchman still said nothing. 'Does your silence indicate permission to pass?'  

This is exactly how it feels to be who I am and have a son in my neighborhood.

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