72. The Handmaid’s Tale

As the recent television adaptation is being celebrated far and wide, I decided it was time that I read it before jumping on the binge watching bandwagon. This is one of those novels that I dived into completely blind without looking at the blurb or synopsis but I wish that I had. I am certain I would have read it a little sooner had I been a little better informed. This is a dystopia, humanity is on the edge of extinction and few women can produce viable children. These women, the red Handmaidens, are treated like cattle, or a walking incubator. A surrogate without autonomy, they are moved from household to household, stripped of their real names and once a month submit to medical examinations and fertilisation from the eligible male in the house.

The Handmaid’s Tale turns women into objects unable to rule themselves, sex into that which is pleasureless, and pregnancy is rewarded with social status and privilege. The other side of this coin is that the inability to reproduce is punished, abortion and (presumably) birth control are illegal, and this totalitarian society will kick you to death while it softly smiles.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

I don’t think I love this novel, but the Handmaid’s Tale has given me some complicated feelings. It is a novel that seems to look at you accusingly. I don’t know how or whether this is intentional, but I had that overwhelming sense of silent judgement, but it is a gaze that stares at you directly, unflinching, while a very frank narrative is unwoven. But this accusation, this sense of guilt that comes from this novel is delivered from a protagonist who is in a position least able to accuse. Offred is required to be passive, but we hear the narrative through her introspection. She is also a character who is forced to hide her face, to walk with subservient posture and is not to directly put her will on anyone beyond her intended purpose. This results in the only safe place for Offred is within her own mind.

The Handmaid’s Tale made me feel uncomfortable and powerless, particularly because this society seems to be built overnight. Assigned gendered roles, laws suddenly dismantling lives and how helpless Offred is within this tsunami is harrowing. While reading it I could not help but think how easily it would be for Offred to drown, how easily under these circumstances one’s will could break. It is as if Atwood has shifted the entire cosmos off it’s recognisable axis, but left enough that read with the right set of social opinion this is a horror story. But read by the casual observer this is still a novel dares you to say these circumstances are humane and are something for a society with a dropping population to aim for.

Offred’s position as a Handmaiden is relatively routine. She does the shopping, getting items in exchange for plastic tokens. She daily has to pass the Wall of dead traitors, displayed like a butterfly collection. She has to navigate other Handmaidens, probing for who is a true believer and who is part of the underground movement. She witnesses births. She reflects upon her own life, grieving for her family and once a month she joins the Commander and his awful wife, Serena Joy in the bedroom.

I should also mention that in this world, men don’t have an easy ride with sex either. Men aren’t allowed to have sex unless it is properly sanctioned.

The monthly ritual is a loveless affair, much like ploughing a field. And life, I expect, would’ve continued like this until something very odd happens. The Commander invites Offred into his study one evening, requests her to kiss him like she means it, and to play scrabble with him. This sounds like the cheesiest date in the world, but Offred is not allowed to read or write, she is not allowed to kiss or be kissed by the Commander and she is certainly not allowed to be alone with him in his study.

Offred agrees to spend time alone with him curious to where these meetings will take her and he gives her old magazines to look through and they often fall into discussions in a way that two people with these very different social positions shouldn’t. While this is going on the oblivious Serena Joy seems to be hatching her own plan. The usually terrible woman offers Offred a plan and a cigarette in an unexpected moment of kindness. But things of course don’t work out as intended (but you’ll have to read it to find out why).

Although this novel left me with conflicting feelings I really enjoyed it. Atwood seems to take pleasure in delivering her horrible world and it is beautifully written at times. The candid intimacy between Offred and reader that cuts close to the bone and Atwood also writes a whole host of women who are convincing and believable. From Offred struggling in the now, to her reflections on her wild feminist activist mother, to her old friend Moira, to the wives and the other handmaidens. The world of women dominates this novel, albeit it is a helpless and horrible one and of course, who do you trust when everyone is waiting for everyone else to slip up? Men in power seem to circle above these women dipping in and out only to pick at the carcass that is left for them as if these little shreds they grab are trophies.

There is really something terribly sickening and emotionally exhausting about this novel but also it awakens that enduring rage and drive that is ever rekindled by social issues. The Handmaid’s Tale jolts awake the senses with a powerless protagonist who has had her choices taken away but who is suddenly given unexpected options. This is an important novel. Put it on your ‘novels to read this year’ list.

71. Giovanni’s Room 

‘Tell me,’ he said ‘what is this thing about time? Why is it better to be late than early? People are always saying, we must wait, we must wait. What are they waiting for?’ p.33

Alongside the stack of unread Discworld novels, beneath my bedside table there is a good chunk of varied literature that I haven’t gotten my teeth into yet. Weirdly, (I am a hopeless romantic), I have never really read into much romance or ‘love’. Whenever I have, I have found formulaic novels devoted to the conquest of a ‘happy ending’ which more often than not is a tragic ending. In my mind to make a classic Romance, you need the stoic, emotionally unavailable lover, the miserable tortured artist, a straying heroine, a third party’s return to dash all hope of an affair becoming more than an affair, and the truth finally uncovered. It’ll be a novel riddled with foolish mistakes made due to fear, miscommunication, and the human condition of hoping there can be more but never quite managing to be brave enough to reach out for it.

This is actually the majority of Giovanni’s Room in a nutshell, but Baldwin puts a spin on some of these classic elements and as a result the novel is enjoyable, if not a little hopeless and tortured. Giovanni’s Room is a tasteful coming out story, it is the explorer realising himself as ‘other’ and discovering how terrifying it is to be ‘other’. It is a protagonist’s rejection of himself and his lover and of course how foolish it is to reject yourself and the consequences of denying your own feelings.

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

One of the more interesting things about this novel is David’s, the protagonist, awareness of how tenuous his own masculinity is. Or perhaps maybe his masculinity itself isn’t tenuous, but it is how tenuous the projection of social masculinity is and how easily it is unraveled by prying eyes ‘seeing’ what has long been suppressed. David initially has an impulse to maintain his projection of masculinity as a barrier between himself and the rest of the world. This impulse seems to relax for a while but returns later on in the novel.

I have been trying to decide where I think this impulse is rooted but it’s not simplistic. I think it is heavily implied by Baldwin that David’s impulse is fear boiling to the surface, and the difficulty of having an identity that doesn’t ‘fit’ with social expectation, as his lover is another man. This is quite a difficult thing to achieve in any novel, even with a good helping of introspection and Baldwin pulls it off like a master puppeteer.

The narrative follows David’s reflection on his love affair with a man called Giovanni. It is the story of how they meet, how they were, who they socialise with and then how it ends. But this is framed by some sinister knowledge that Giovanni is somehow going to die because of this love affair which is never revealed fully until the very end of the novel. David is also part of a bit of a complicated circle in Paris, the rich old ‘fairies’ pay the boys on the street for ‘release’ and the rich old ‘fairies’ also seem to run things with their spoilt tantrums. Poor Giovanni is at the mercy of them for part of this novel as he is jobless and helpless.

David meets Giovanni while his woman is away in Spain, deciding how she feels about him. He rediscovered feelings he repressed in his youth and although he is involved he cannot fully let himself be with Giovanni. They live together for a while and Giovanni is revealed as a man who has dumped his life into one room, he belongs to his endless artistic projects that include the room itself. But there seems to always be a distance between David and Giovanni and it is in the most heart wrenching moments of the book where Gio’s painful past is revealed and the reason why he left Italy.

It is in these passionate discussions that I cannot help but feel as if David is attempting to be the stoic emotionally stagnated character. Neatly timed for Hella’s return from Spain David throws himself back into the fantasy of her and they decide to marry but he quickly fades away from her and is wracked by guilt for Giovanni.

There is certainly much more to this novel than at first meets the eye. This is not a novel that has the artful postures of love, that shapes itself on long sighs and whimsy. It is a novel that is supposed to be a tangle of forces pulling David in all directions and it did leave me a little sad in the end. Sad for David. Sad for Giovanni. Sad for Hella. It felt like a decidedly Kafka-esque conclusion, which I suppose is true for many love affairs. Gender roles in this novel were handled in quite an interesting way, David rejecting the idea that Giovanni wants him to be a ‘housewife’, the ‘other’ masculinity that belongs to ‘deviant’ sexuality, Hella’s instance she now wants to be a wife. But it also demonstrates how fine the line is between love and agony and how quickly people reject one another’s company or even who they were with said person because they are wounded.

This novel succeeds to create a facsimile of just how complicated sexuality, gender, and social pressure can be when you are concerned about the expectations placed on you. It is a tragic story in many ways but will give you ample to think about regardless of your own sexuality, gender identity, or relationship status.

70. A Closed and Common Orbit 

Everywhere I look online I find people celebrating this novel (granted I haven’t looked very far or very deep into the internet). Personally, I am ready to bludgeon anybody who refuses to give a closed and common orbit a chance; so be warned. If you ever find me on my soapbox in a bookshop with you (it happens often) handing you this novel and you do not buy it, it will somehow find it’s way into your bag anyway. (Or perhaps it won’t.) But seriously this novel is now high up on my favourites list alongside the novel it follows a long way to a small angry planet.

I’ve actually been having a little bit of trouble in starting this post because this is that novel for me in many ways. It is that novel, which arrives exactly when you need it to. It is that novel that excels in world building and foregrounds gender identity, sexuality, and social invisibility. It is that novel that also demonstrates the validity of viable AI personalities deserving a recognised place in society beyond that of property to be sold. It is that novel that supports escape as a means to reclaiming yourself from authorities. It is that novel that demands you recognise the want for becoming autonomous is not only an option, but a right. It is that novel that tells you you are not who you were initially designed and purposed to be and that’s okay.

a closed and common orbit – Becky Chambers

But it is also that novel that calls into question friendship and family and blurs the lines between them. Our main characters are inherently good people who bind together and choose their family and and leaving one another to sink is conceptually unthinkable for any of them. There is kindness to be had even from strangers in common orbit. This novel, for me, is a safe space that throws a lot at you, makes you wait for the ending but along the way it’ll take you into it’s arms and tell you “you’re okay now.”

But as you’d expect Common orbit is a little different from the long way. It is still as enchanting as the space opera that is reminiscent of firefly, however it feels a little more economical without loosing the easy writing style and it’s a little grittier. Instead of flying around all over the place, common orbit is a novel in two parts.

In our current timeline we witness Lovelace’s transportation from the Wayfarer Ship shortly after the events of the previous novel. Pepper takes Lovey under her wing while Lovey adjusts to her new life that she has opted for in the ‘kit’ that makes her appear as human rather than AI. In the other timeline that builds the other half of the novel, Pepper (then known as Jane 23) has an opportunity to share her story from small genetically altered child sorting scrap metal to the streetwise engineering wiz-kid we know today.

It is easy to forget that Jane 23 is a child for a lot of this novel and is sort of raised by the AI, Owl who’s stranded ship Jane is living on. The daily grind of finding water, mushrooms, dogs, scrap that might fix Owl’s ship, is central to Jane’s existence and as a result struggle seems to quietly dominate this part of the novel. Loneliness is a quiet undertone and while Jane 23 has nobody but Owl, Lovey (now Sidra) seems to have too many people around her and too many things pulling her in all directions.

Sidra is struggling to accept the limitations of the ‘Kit’ and to even fix her identity onto it. Her job is to observe everything at once and this makes being outside, where there are no constraints, very difficult for her. It also makes socialising awkward as she wants to always stand in the corner and quietly watch. She is painfully aware just how different she is. It is a difficult adjustment trying to intergrade with living species and even adjusting to the perception of how these living species view AI’s. Sidra’s body kit is extremely illegal, and she begins to fear of what it could mean subjecting her friends to if she is found out by the authorities.

This novel is a little grittier than the last one, it isn’t as lighthearted and as far flung and it doesn’t move around as much as the long way. But that really demonstrates the strength of Chamber’s writing. Chamber has opportunity to get down and dirty with how elegantly she plays with the reader’s emotions, with how wonderful all that subtext is and I am not ashamed to say that this novel made me cry (four times). I’m not sure if it is because this novel is as vivid as it is, or if the sense of social and physical struggle just really got to me, but it got me. Chambers had me like putty in her hands.

Another thing I’m going to mention which I haven’t actually seen being given much airtime in other reviews is that common orbit focuses on non-binary gender identity with absolute elegance. In fact it succeeds so much in giving visibility to non-conforming, gender fluidity that there is an entire branch of a species that can and does switch genders regularly. Sure some people out there right now are going ‘so we’re aliens right?’ but actually pronouns like ‘xe’ and ‘xyr’ are littered around this novel when the gender of the person in question is unknown. It is also mentioned to be impolite to misgender someone in this novel and how important it is to ask for clarity.

Gender fluidity in common orbit is treated just as polyamorous relationships and sexuality in the long way, with absolute distain for anyone who believes it is an incorrect way to be as it is incredibly rude to suggest it. It is not accepted anywhere that it is okay to disregard the customs or beliefs of other people as ‘weird’ because they are not your own. Faced with new things and experiences, our characters adapt and accept. And I love that with every cell in my alien body. More fiercely that you can imagine.

In someways this novel feels just like coming home for me. It is everything I love about the genre and it is everything I wish the world was. A closed and common orbit is that book for me, it is that love affair that I will never let go of or get over because it is pure and precious and safe and it should be my life. I should live on these worlds with these people. So if you don’t read it or the long way to a small angry planet, I will personally bludgeon you – for your own stupid, stupidity at missing out on such poignant novels that resonate so deeply.

69. Gould’s Book of Fish 

Gould’s Book of Fish is a novel told in twelve fish. It is a book of fish, about a book of fish, about a guy who wants to be a fish, who thinks he is secretly a fish, who loves and paints fish, but is actually… not really a fish (I think)… though sometimes he is a fish. This is a novel about unreliable narration and the authenticity of what we are told – even by what is found in written records as “official” history. I really wanted to like this novel and though I have found redeeming features I honestly did not enjoy this novel as a whole package and I found it remarkably tedious at times. This novel is a very ambitious venture and I can entirely appreciate what others may see in it as without a doubt it is quite unique in how it goes about things.

Gould’s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan

Unfortunately this is not a novel I bought but it is something that I was given, which makes me feel quite awful for not enjoying it. This novel is posed as a memoir from a (presumably) cracked and overactive imagination that verges into the surreal and ridiculous at times. Authenticity is at the heart of Gould’s Book of Fish and I genuinely finished it down wondering if it wasn’t an entirely wasted journey? I really hate it when the final page of a novel reveals the secret that undoes the entire 450 pages that I have just devoted time to. Yes it’s clever, it’s a wonderful detail that makes some people clap their hands happily and squee. But in this case it just made me angry.

William Buelow Gould is a liar, murderer, forger, and convict living in a very not nice place. We are in one of the most brutal penal colonies of the British Empire. Where our not very nice character begins his long record of how he came to be here and an increasingly bizarre set of tales that are increasingly tall that all sort of muddle together into a kaleidoscopic mush.

The most important of all of these is his painting career. Tobias Lempriere who desperately wants to be admitted to the Royal Academy of Science. Lempriere is convinced that his scrupulous cataloging of wildlife will get him elected and at length describes the importance of such cataloging. He is one of the many Dickensian-esque characters with a bit of dark playful whimsy about him. Lempriere only speaks in CAPITALS and is ultimately murdered by an angry, drunk pig. When he learns that Gould is a painter he longwindedly orders to him to paint a book of fish.

While Gould has gained himself a mild position of safety within his own stories, the island around him disintegrates under the rule of a Commander slowly going mad and generally paints quite a hostile environment to live in. Gould also has the misfortune of discovering that someone who shouldn’t be is entirely fabricating life on the island in written records. Meaning that history shall remember them not as the horrible circus they are. Gould the ‘hero’ ultimately goes on a rampage about this in an attempt to save the future from the ignorance of the horrors they live in.

Flanagan sustains his writing style throughout, he is quite deft with Gould’s jaunty tangents. This novel is supposed to feel a little slapstick, but for me it was like a comedy without the humour, it didn’t really work. I didn’t really feel as if I was ever in the thick of it picking at the goop of an sea anemone through starvation. I didn’t really smell the pig shit or hear the bobbing heads in barrels screaming. The dark face of this novel is tongue in cheek and it points to the flaws in humanity but it is so detached that I couldn’t enjoy it.

But, there are plus points. This novel appalled me with the ugly face of humanity and flippant take on British Colonialism that made me feel quite uncomfortable. In that regard this novel feels entirely historically accurate.

For many reasons I think this novel may appeal to someone else, it is about awful characters and an awful place and muddling some sense of what is beautiful and what is not. But to me that cracked persona seems to suggest nothing of any real consequence beyond self-involvement and self-preservation and long days full of babbling delusions. Perhaps that nub of what has put my hackles up about this novel. There is nothing good and everyone is bad, ignorant, stupid, or mad and the past/present/future is just a story we tell ourselves.

It’s worth reading, just expect an unusual ride.

68. The Girl of Ink and Stars

I have read some reviews about this novel that suggest that it was a disappointment and that it could’ve done a lot more. Firstly, I am going to disagree with the this because the Girl of Ink and Stars is a delight. Secondly, have we read the same novel? For real? This novel is abundantly wholesome, it is so morally ‘good’ that it is splitting at the seams. Perhaps some readers have missed the undertones of this novel: class division and the persecution of those different to you, the importance of forgiveness, the wonder of magic and mythology and a love for stories (and how none of these things are stupid), enduring loyalty and the strength of true friendship that goes beyond the threat of bodily harm. Cross dressing (because who doesn’t love a good disguise). Not to mention great value is placed on the environment in this novel

And the most difficult lesson of all: that you are capable of being the hero of your own story.

The Girl of Ink and Stars – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

So please, dear friends, do not listen to those people who tell you this novel ‘doesn’t do enough.’ The story is simplistic but enjoyable, it’s easy to read and honestly a little gritty in areas which surprised me. I’d say that this is a novel for children on the cusp of becoming teenagers but I enjoyed it and I am certainly not an overgrown child *looks shifty*.

You know me by now, I can’t resist a good story and a little magic and the Girl of Ink and Stars really does both of these things so beautifully. But it doesn’t simply concentrate on the fantastical elements of the novel to drum up a little magic, but at the very core of this novel are two girls from very different backgrounds who want to rescue each other. This novel is a little fairytale like, there is a big positive focus on mythology and story telling and embracing odd hobbies as something to celebrate rather than ostracise. You don’t have to be the cool kid in this story, your individuality is the most important thing and these things alone are really positive messages to give to young people.

Isabella (our protagonist) is a really interesting character, her mother and brother have both passed away and the early chapters are tinged with grief. She is the daughter of the cartographer and she has learnt to draw maps and read the stars from her father’s instruction. Her father walks with a bad limp and is a terrible cook and they have a very ill tempered and very old chicken. But none of these details are forced upon the reader, things unfold very naturally and the tone of the novel always remains uniformly simplistic and airy and interesting and it doesn’t feel cliche.

The Girl of Ink and Stars follows Isabella (or Isa) on the island of Joya. It is quickly apparent that there is a villainous Governor running things and everyone poor is quite unhappy. Class division is prominently felt by angry boys like Pablo who are forced to work in the place of their mothers. Quite suddenly, a local girl is killed in bizarre circumstances. Which turns the town into a bit of a pressure cooker, people get angry, the Governor plucks his daughter Lupe (and Isabella’s best friend) out from the thick of it and sends his little men to do his dirty work.

Lupe, being a headstrong daughter of a hard and difficult man, sneaks out that night to meet up with Isa. They quickly spiral into a heated argument because, as I said before, the two girls are from very different worlds and Lupe is sheltered by her family from the misfortune of the lower classes. Isa feels horribly guilty as she goes home and then later finds out that Lupe has taken off into the forest to find whatever it is that has killed the local girl and to prove she “isn’t rotten.”

And then I’m sure you can guess what happens: Isa decides to go after her and discovers all of the weird and wonderful things in the forest and what the rest of the island looks like.

This novel would make a wonderful bedtime story. It’s engaging and has quite a timeless feel to it that brings the Brothers Grimm, C.S. Lewis and also Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials and Predator Cities by Philip Reeves. I really loved reading this. I think you’re mad if you don’t give it a go.

67. How to Build a Girl 

This is not my first encounter with Caitlin Moran because I’m already a bit of a fan. Raised by Wolves (written by Moran for Channel 4) was one of those TV programs that I couldn’t help but love because it is reminiscent of families I knew growing up, and of my own family, friends and just about everyone I knew before I went to university. Sure it’s a bit of a piss-take, but it captures the rough as muck, angry crust that makes the pride of Black Country people. And let’s face it, if we aren’t taking the piss out of you and cracking vulgar jokes while drinking your beer and eating your crisps – we probably don’t like you.

Moran is a familiar voice. She is a working-class girl who has triumphed in journalism and her authenticity comes through in How to Build a Girl.

How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran

This isn’t a perfect novel however, this isn’t a sleek novel with a thin layer of polish on the mahogany. This novel is a bit like a pub table. It has hundreds of ancient layers of varnish that are pockmarked with lighter scorches, it wobbles a little, and the corners are bashed to all hell, but it works.

“So far, the only plan I’ve come up with is writing. I can write, because writing – unlike choreography, architecture or conquering kingdoms – is a thing you can do when you’re lonely and poor, and have no infrastructure, i.e.: a ballet troupe, or some cannons. Poor people can write. It’s one of the few things poverty, and a lack of connections, cannot stop you doing.” p. 31

How to Build a Girl is the story of well-read Joanna Morrigan, a 14 year old girl living in 90s Wolverhampton who is trying to reinvent herself. She refers to this reinvention as killing herself, a sort of suicide of the old to allow the new to take over and conquer. This is a twist on a coming of age story with a lot of vulgarity, humour, and of course – writing.

Joanna first takes to trying to write a novel, and when she realises this is a non-starter, she enters a poem into a competition. On winning the competition she is invited to be interviewed on national television and this strange, unpopular, overweight teenager does something terrible, an impression of Scooby Doo, which subsequently means she can never show her face in public again.

From this point Joanna decides to turn her hand to music journalism, takes up a new name, Dolly Wilde, and becomes a sort of goth. For a while this doesn’t help her other quest which is to become not a not-kissed, virgin until then she finds some success in her new career, leaves school, and begins mixing with a crowd of cynics from work.

There are a lot of balls flying around in this novel from this point. Johanna’s escapades into sex are focused on pleasing her male partners and not actually in finding pleasure for herself. Johanna realises that class is a significant part of her life when she realises she is her not-quite-boyfriend’s ‘little bit of rough’. This leads to her shouting at him, demanding that actually he is actually ‘her little bit of posh’ (I’ve been there). There is the love interest, the eccentric John Kite, the alcoholic, chain-smoker who is far too eloquent. And of course Johanna learns that being a cynic rather than a fan in her work earns her a more work, but also how poison cynicism can be.

“Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow – like insect armour. This armour will protect your heart, from disappointment – but it leaves you almost unable to work. You cannot dance, in this armour. Cynicism keeps you pinned to the spot, in the same posture, forever.” – p. 262

Johanna is an interesting character as development goes, there is all the enthusiasm and excitement and desperation associated with 14 year old girls and navigating teenage years. But it is satisfying as she comes to conclusions in sometimes absurd ways. I quite like Johanna, but partly that is because she reminds me of girls I grew up with, and partly she reminds me of myself.

Her family are the honest to goodness, struggling to survive unit, on benefits, five kids, Mum struggling with postnatal depression, and Dad who hurt himself quite badly once, but still dreams of becoming a rockstar. There is something very ordinary about all of them, her parents love and support their daughter, Johanna herself wants to be daring and do something different from the rest of her family. And fundamentally I think she really wants to carve out her own identity.

This is a very relatable book, it’s funny, blunt and vulgar, it’s easy to read but it is raw and has spontaneity. This novel has certainly intrigued me about more of Moran’s work, but I am not certain I would read it again but I will certainly bestow How to Build a Girl’s virtues on anyone who asks (or doesn’t).

This is not a novel for a faint heart or the easily offended or for anyone who believes women do not masturbate. This novel has it’s balls out and firmly pressed to the shop window and is glorious in it’s blunt honesty.

66. The Trial 

This is a difficult read. I bought The Essential Kafka a while ago and while reading The Trial decided it would be better split into several reads. My first impression was that I do not like Kafka. My feelings are very certain that he makes me uncomfortable as a reader. But that is a very powerful feeling and there are very complex feelings muddled up with my dislike. So because ‘there is something about Kafka’ (now isn’t that the title of a rom-com) that makes me want to understand why I feel this way I was compelled to research.

Because there is something about Kafka and I think he is worth working a little harder for.

The Essential Kafka (The Trial) – Franz Kafka 

The Trial is in many ways a nightmare to read. It is bewildering. There are no answers. Things are absurd, you are very powerless in this novel. It is claustrophobic and almost unbearable to read. I am sure there are many people that would put it down because this is not a fun ride – this book is out to physiologically ridicule you. It wants to make you uncomfortable. It wants to put you in a place where you are desperate and unhappy. Because that is the point of it.

So who was this so called person? Well, the Monument in German Literature was actually quite a complicated person. He was the unfortunate son of an abusive father. He grew up shy and bookish with an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. He was terribly afraid of his father and in his adult life he tried to write a letter to confront his father about his awful childhood that had left him feeling deformed. He suffered with his health. He was also so unsatisfied with his three major works, the Trial, the Castle and Amerika that he requested that they be destroyed after his death (but his friend published them instead).

Because of his work the term Kafkaesque has entered the vernacular, to describe circumstances that are characteristic or reminiscent of his oppressive and nightmarish fiction.

The Trial follows Josef K. a middle class, bachelor, management banker who wakes up one morning to find two men in his apartment telling him he is under arrest. Upon questioning them, they refuse to tell him his charges (they have also taken his breakfast hostage) even when he presents identification. One of the many absurdities in this novel is that K. is never actually told the charges nor are the nature of the judicial proceedings ever made clear to him. K. seems to never quite take it all seriously because of this.

Then K. tries to navigate bureaucracy, laws, and bewildering procedures trying to find what he has been charged with. But of course, nobody, not even his lawyer, has the answer to that. He goes into surreal buildings that all seem to be owned by the court. He has several long kissing sessions with various women (some of which throw themselves at him) and is told that he is an embarrassment to his family.

He accidentally walks in on two men being flogged. He accidentally has an encounter with an artist constantly swamped by children – who unsurprisingly work for the court and promises to help him. He mistreats his landlady and is generally an unsympathetic character who is abrasive, arrogant, and at the best of times a little clueless. He has a discussion with a Priest. Is picked up by two blundering men and is then executed by them “like a dog.”

It’s a bleak novel that leaves you with several unsavoury flavours which are: there are no answers, life is cruel and bewildering, and one is never in control of ones own destiny.

But this is also a novel that points to significant things about the legal system. In the Trial that system doesn’t serve justice, it’s soul function is to propitiate itself. The legal system is unstoppable even though K. is at liberty and allowed to carry on in his life and work, while his court proceedings are going on. He could run. He could set the courthouse on fire. He could go on a rampage and kill his way to the top to find answers. But he doesn’t.

I believe it is because the legal system is a living thing that has set it’s beady eye on K. and will have him guilty. He is almost being collared by an angry parent and K’s. certainty in his own innocence crumbles because said parent has sat him on the naughty step to think about what he has done, when he really has no idea.

How innocent K. is I guess is really up to the reader to decide, but within that discussion we open a couple of thought provoking doors that are really at the heart of the text. Through one door we can look at the novel as an intimate unravelling of K.’s mind, through another we question the subjective nature of innocence and morality and through another we question the totalitarian state K. is apparently part of.

I want to believe he is innocent and a victim of circumstance because I am essentially an optimist. But I don’t actually think it matters. One’s innocence is treated with a sort of apathy in the Trial as there are all sorts of people are watching you and making decisions about you based on rules you aren’t aware of. It seems the judgement of innocence is actually arbitrary by the end of the novel, and because of that justice itself is arbitrary.

The world defined in the Trial is one that is designed to make us feel powerless and is designed to reflect emotions that are otherwise unbearable. I think Kafka is one of the more thought provoking authors I have dived into and I am certain I will read more. But I am also aware I probably won’t like it, even if there is something about Kafka.