Lethem is the bestselling author of two story collections, two essay collections, and nine other novels, including Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. A MacArthur Fellow, his writing has appeared in magazines including The New Yorker and Harper’s; his critical prefaces introduce works by writers like Philip K. Dick, Shirley Jackson, G.K. Chesterton, and Nathanael West. He spoke to me by phone.
Jonathan Lethem: When I first read Kafka’s The Castle, I think I was fifteen. The copy I had was an old Shocken hardcover edition I found in the library of my high school, Music and Art—New York City’s public school for musicians and visual art students. I was a denizen of the Music and Art library, which was not a very lively joint at that point. It was full of incredible hardcovers of all kinds, many of them mouldering. At the same time, I was also going to lots of used bookstores all over the city, which, back then, was still filled with them. Rent was so cheap that these eccentric, clubhouse sort of used bookstores proliferated: whole rooms full of books, manned by some old bookseller who wasn’t trying very hard and scared away half his customers with his crankiness.
I was right in the middle of a phase where I just wanted to read as many novels of as many kinds as I could. I had no compass. I was just trying to read everything, and I was hot on the trail of Kafka. I’d been reading science fiction, and I’d already discovered Borges, and in a certain way I associated Kafka with these things—I’d gotten the hint that if I liked morbid, fantastical things, gothic stuff, that he might work for me. So I read The Castle, read it fast and in a fury, to find out what happened at the end. I took it as a given that every book was headed somewhere, and obviously this book was headed to the castle. There was going to be a great, grand finale up there—because what book called The Castle wouldn’t have some incredible culmination up in the castle? As I read, it was total cathexis. I was with K., every inch of every paragraph, waiting for revelation. And when the story falls off the cliff at the end, I was enraged. I wanted my money back. (Except I hadn’t spent any money.) I couldn’t believe there could be a famous book that was so radically unsatisfying. I remember thinking, how can he even be a famous author if he fucks you over this badly? It just seemed like a disaster.
And then—at some point not shortly after this violent sensation of having been misused by the book—I guess I wanted more. I needed to be in that headspace again. So I read The Trial.
The Trial was one of the key reading experiences of my teenage years. It made me a writer; it made me who I am. And if I never encountered another book by Kafka—if I hadn’t then gone on to learn about the short stories, and the aphorisms, and the diaries, and the letter to his father, all of which I eventually devoured in my twenties—even if there were only The Trial, and The Castle lurking there in the background, I would have talked about Kafka as one of my favorite writers for the rest of my life anyway. I was just his.