May 18, 2016
Does this book prize make me look Kafkaesque?
by Ryan Harrington
On Monday, May 16 it was announced that South Korean author Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian has won the Man Booker International Prize. Huge congratulations are due to Han and her English translator Deborah Smith. But beyond the £25,000 (each) purse, and perhaps an uptick in book sales, what cultural impact can awards announcements possibly have?
Well, as early as the next morning, Merriam Webster detected and reported a spike in the number of dictionary users searching for the term Kafkaesque—a word that publishers, retailers, and reviewers have frequently used to describe the surreal story of alienation and radical transformation Kang’s book tells. As a refresher, Merriam Webster offered this explanation for the term:
The word derives from the famed Czech novelist Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whose prose became so synonymous with the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual in the 20th century that writers began using his name as an adjective a mere 16 years after his death.
You’re far likelier to hear the word Kafkaesque than you are its literary cousins Dickensian and Byronic. But for all of its currency, it is very often the subject of accusations of misuse. Way back in 1991, the New York Times ran a piece entitled The Essence of ‘Kafkaesque’, wherein Kafka biographer Frederick R. Karl says:
What’s Kafkaesque . . . is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world. You don’t give up, you don’t lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don’t stand a chance. That’s Kafkaesque.
By this logic, it is not enough to use Kafkaesque as an adjective meaning “relating to Kafka’s work” (I’m thinking here of a phrase such as “Frederick R. Karl is a Kafkaesque name” (but we can agree it is)), or to complain about the inefficiencies of the DMV.
A 2014 Guardian article goes a bit further to suss out the nuances of this most fraught word, consulting three dictionaries, a number of essays, and even an episode of Breaking Bad. But in the context of dust jacket copy and book reviews, perhaps the adjective stands, above all, as a signifier of literary merit. After all, Kang’s Kafkaesque The Vegetarian and Donna Tartt’s Dickensian The Goldfinch have both won top-shelf literary prizes, and we can’t just be calling them “weird” and “long with stark reversals of fortune,” respectively. Can we?
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.