When Novels Frustrate, and Enthrall

Franz Kafka’s work taught the writer Jonathan Lethem about how to incorporate chaos into narratives.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

When the novelist Jonathan Lethem discovered Kafka’s The Castle, as a bookish high-school kid in the late ’70s, his initial response was obsession—followed by rage. At first, the novel’s sudden ending seemed like sacrilege. But Kafka’s narratives of thwarted progress became a major influence on Lethem’s own fiction,  as he explained in a conversation for this series.

In particular, Lethem pointed to Kafka’s leopards in the temple, a three-line parable about unruly cats who become central to a ritual they once disrupted. For Lethem, the piece is small but immensely meaningful: In a handful of lines, it offers rich insights into the nature of artistic influence, the novel’s role in culture, and the value of facing private shame on the page.

Lethem’s latest novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, begins in Germany, where an aging backgammon hustler named Bruno develops an alarming affliction: a black spot slides across his vision, partially blinding him. (He calls it the “blot,” which, we learn, is also slang for an unprotected checker.) Parceled out in 36 short chapters—the number of possible outcomes from a pair of tossed dice—the book follows Bruno from Berlin toward a potential cure in Berkeley. It emerges that Bruno regaining his sight will mean giving up other, deeper facets of himself.

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.

But the other part of my incredibly deliberate program was that, if I liked a writer, I had to read every word. (I’d already done it with Graham Greene, Shirley Jackson, and Philip K. Dick.) I didn’t necessarily do it right away—of course, sometimes I couldn’t even find all the titles right away. But I knew I would exhaust their shelf. I think I was probably done with everything I could find of Kafka’s by the middle of my twenties. I would have encountered the leopards aphorism around then.

Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.

It would have been one of the last things of his I read, just because of my nature as a reader. I dig narrative. I wouldn’t have been shopping for aphorisms, which have nothing to do with what brought me to literature in the first place. I was a very literal reader. I wanted stories with characters, lots of occurrences and situations. That’s what I was reading for, and how Kafka first netted me: with this extreme, perverse, but very compulsive narrative. Borges writes about Kafka in a way that turns the Greek philosopher Xeno into his precursor, because Kafka’s narrative is all based on Xeno’s paradox: the idea that you’re always closing half the distance to your target, but you never fully arrive. It’s a consummately frustrated form of narrative progress, but it is one, and it has a labyrinthine, compulsive, hypnotic quality to it. That narrative quality is what gets me in a position to become a reader of Kafka’s language and someone who identifies with his philosophical implications (though it’s hard to say just what those are). It begins with story.

In its way, the leopards in the temple is a tiny little story. There’s a violent and exciting plot that takes place over a certain amount of time. But one of the things that's entrancing is: well, how long does it take to incorporate the leopards into the ceremony? Did it take hundreds of years of civilization to incorporate the leopards our forefathers once bemoaned? Or is it—well, last Wednesday we thought it was a problem but this week we decided to work around it? However long the span of time is, there’s a sort of intensely embedded kind of narrative situation with characters who make a decision to resolve a kind of conflict in favor of incorporating chaos into their worldview.

But it also it looks to me like an M.C. Escher drawing, which is another thing I thought was extremely cool when I was 15 years old. In some oblique way, this topological quality is still what I respond to in Kafka. The leopards are a piece of the outside that ultimately fit on the inside. Somehow, they complete a shape that initially seems like it's meant to be a negative space, but actually the negative space becomes essential to the completion of the positive space. The temples and the chalices are like the drawing that Escher would render in lighter colors with cutout shapes of negative space that you begin to see look like a leopard, and then you realize: wait a minute, the leopard is the drawing. There's a yin-yang quality to it, the way these two things become interdependent spatially.

To me, the leopards in the chapel are a beautiful allegory of high and low culture. I wear on my sleeve a definition of the literary project of the novel: its signature is the incorporation of the demotic. The novel is always gobbling up the language of the street and of commerce and of popular culture—in fact, it's driven by the need to replenish itself by what might seem at first to be its nemeses. People are always wanting to put the novel on a pedestal and make it a kind of exalted art form, as if it's a Mark Rothko painting in a chapel, or a Beethoven symphony. They want it to be a purified high form, which is a meaningful desire, because when novels change your life they make you feel exalted. But in fact novels are just organically made of the rabble of the everyday. You can't purify them.  You can't extract the demotic material. So you could take the leopards and the chalices as a symbol of the novelist's impure position—as a negotiator of high impulses and low sources.

Pretty much every generation of fiction writers has to find a way to invite in the leopards: the stuff that’s objectionable to the older generations. When I started incorporating so much of the stuff of the vernacular culture and commercial that excited me—advertising, comic books, genre, pulp, rock and roll—even  I thought I was, in some way, fouling the nest. But I couldn't keep from doing it. And then I began to become defiant about that project. I thought, wait a minute, that's what Dickens did. And I incorporated it into the ceremony.

You could also read the aphorism as about the folly of trying to protect yourself—as a person, or as an artist—from the things that frighten and threaten you. Because what a boring ceremony without the leopards, right? Who wants to see the ceremony without the leopards, once you know that they might come? I was saying this to students last night in a fiction workshop: The impulse to make the ritual safe, to put characters in play who are ultimately admirable and can be redeemed, is extremely boring and also suspect. There's something that you're protecting yourself from—and why bother? Damage is in the mix, and it should be. What was the ceremony for before the leopards came along? It was probably for hoping the leopards wouldn't come along. But you don't really want it to succeed. Your damage and your dismay are the best things you’ve got going, and you've got to open yourself to it.

I learned that, in a way, by writing my two Brooklyn books—Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude—which manage the anxiety and the trauma associated with where I was from. I took my most turbulent and confused feelings about that, my defiance and pride and embarrassment, as well as proprietary feeling that I could never justify, especially since I'd run fast and far away from the scene. So what was it that I was entitled to claim as my own? But I opened that door—and I did it accidentally, in a way—by introducing Brooklyn into this cute, clever postulate I'd come up with about a detective with Tourette's Syndrome. It needn't have been a Brooklyn book, and I hadn't ever written one before. But by putting him in that environment, I found myself tapping those anxieties, and in that book I managed them pretty completely. That was how I announced to myself that the leopards really needed to drink the chalices.

Fortress of Solitude is where I let the leopards in. Ever since, for me, disappointment and embarrassment are among my most vivid subjects. (And I might say that disappointment and embarrassment are primary in Kafka as well.) One of the things that happens in the aphorism is that the chalices are drained, which again raises the question of: who was supposed to drink it originally? And if it was just going to waste, what were you saving it for? It's a partly a parable about this foolish notion that you have anything to protect in the first place.

Despite all these symbolic and metaphorical layers, I love that the aphorism features real animals. It’s not ghosts. It’s not gargoyles, or a golem. They’re leopards—and this isn’t inconsequential. That’s something that connects to a curiosity of mine, one I had never articulated until recently, that probably starts with Alice in Wonderland, which is the first book I fell in love with at age 11, and was really my doorway out of children’s books and into literature. It was also there in Jack London, and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, some of the books that meant the most to me shortly thereafter: this presence of the real animal as a mystery or rebuke or cipher for the human to contemplate. The animal is an uncrackable code, and yet carries a message that we have to abide in some way.

I was slow to notice how much animals meant to me as a literary emblem. Of course my first novel, Gun with Occasional Music, is full of talking animals. (It’s very much a hardboiled detective/Alice in Wonderland mashup.) And then, in Chronic City, the presence of this tiger in New York City seems to have some kind of leopards-in-the-temple kind of message: the creature making all of these intrusions on the life of the city. He represents a message no one can translate. Almost my favorite Kafka of all is "The Burrow,” with this mole-like creature, whom the narration totally transubstantiates. He becomes the mind of the writer lurking in a tunnel, both inside and outside of life, underground and terrified to come out, and at the same time guarding some cavern of incredible, indefinable value. Kafka’s also got the ape in “Report to the Academy”, and “Investigations of a Dog,” and then the cockroach in Metamorphosis. Kafka was an animal writer.  Against all odds. He was an animal writer like Jack London or Thornton Burgess. It’s the compulsion of an urban mind towards what's been pushed to the periphery, to what's lurking at the farthest edge. I don't think it’s a projection to say the leopards here are part of the world of our animal cohort, whose indifference or hostility we're permanently excluded from—but feel we must understand, because it must hold some key to ourselves.

All this, in these three short lines. It’s the kind of thing that sounds almost biblical, once you read it. How could this belong to one writer? That’s true of a number of Kafka’s aphorisms—they seem somehow emblematic of consciousness itself, and they just carve themselves into the human source code. I don’t have a feeling of first reading this. I have a feeling of having always known it.