‘Disruptions,’ a book of short stories where “Kafkaesque” moral ambiguity transcends time and geography
Steven Millhauser finds rich material for literary experimentation in the leafy suburbs of Connecticut in the middle of the last century and the vain strivers who populate that milieu. His new book, Disruptions, presents 18 short stories, one of whose common denominators is an outlandish David Lynch sensibility, a will to exploit the humor in settings often disparaged for their sedateness. In Millhauser’s literary universe, the safety and normalcy on which people’s sanity depends are as durable as a dime-store curtain in a high school play.
Given his yen for evoking the absurdity that lurks in the seemingly normal, it is no surprise that Millhauser has an interest in Franz Kafka. More than an interest: the will to take risks and use the Czech modernist as a character.
The term Kafkaesque is one of the most misapplied in any language. People throw it around ad nauseam to signify anything a bit weird. But Millhauser is not intellectually lazy. He strives to get at the identity and meaning of one of the most poorly understood authors in history.
The story “Kafka in High School, 1959,” is not the first, and will not be the last, work to take Kafka, who died in June 1924, out of the literal bounds of his life and drop him into another time and place. One a bit different from Prague early in the last century.
Millhauser has fun imagining Kafka as a high school kid in Connecticut, grappling with all the rivalries, insecurities, and status-mongering so familiar in that time of life. Here’s Kafka sneaking glances at a collection of short Russian novels he finds more interesting than anything in AP English, incurring the teacher’s wrath, causing an awkward moment in the classroom. Here’s Kafka staring at a mirror and fretting over his looks, or at a party, dealing with the awkwardness of an unexpected and not wholly desired kiss. And here’s Kafka on the beach, taking in the sun, trying to ignore the punks who would like to kick his scrawny ass. In short, we witness Kafka dealing with the challenges and complexities of living.
In a sense this story is a fictional counterpart to Philip Roth’s essay “Looking at Kafka,” which envisions the Czech as a dull, hectoring, late-middle-aged Hebrew school teacher in the New Jersey that Roth knew as a boy.
On a general level, Roth may have done it before. But Millhauser’s piece is more creative than Roth’s essay, which takes up in a dry expository style the question of whether Kafka would have kept his endearing traits had he lived through and beyond the horrors in Europe and pursued a respectable career in the Jersey suburbs.
Transplanting Kafka in space and time, “Kafka in High School, 1959” goes further than the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s story “Mr. Kafka,” in which Hrabal evokes a night in Prague as Kafka might have experienced it, with dispirited citizens hanging out on street corners and voicing to an indifferent cosmos their nationalist values and their concern for the survival of Czech culture.
Yet in its sly extrapolation, its use of what we know about Kafka to envision what might have been, Millhauser’s story is of a piece with Roth’s essay and Hrabal’s story. With his interest in getting at what Kafka was about, Millhauser evokes a récit by the French writer Bernard Groethuysen that appeared in the journal La Nouvelle Revue Française in April 1933.
Groethuysen, like Millhauser, was a popularizer of Kafka. He wanted people in France during the decade in question, a time as fraught with tensions and uncertainties as any period of history, to get into the modernist’s work. His piece “A propos de Kafka” occupies that shadow land between an essay and a first-person narrative. He brings the reader into a strange realm where an unseen figure pursues you as you look for ways out of the forbidding buildings and alleys in which you have wandered. Groethuysen may not name the menacing figure, but the essay’s themes are stark. Moral quandaries do not come up just for governors who must rule on whether to commute an execution, or heads of state who have to decide whether to invade a country or go to war in response to aggression.
To exist in the world at all has moral consequences, often ones that are not visible to tangible to us but are no less real, Groethuysen suggests. That figure pursuing you is moral guilt, or ambiguity, or shame, or indecision, or all the above. This, we gather, is a sounder definition of Kafkaesque, though Groethuysen does not use the term. It is the concept that spawns the architecture of the massive and unfathomable bureaucracy that tries Joseph K. in The Trial and sets in motion the impossible dilemma of the story “In the Penal Colony,” where a condemned man who presumably objects to capital punishment on moral grounds escapes from a death machine’s maw only to enjoy the execution of the official who was presiding over the botched procedure.
You may not be a character in quite so dramatic a situation, but if you work and pay taxes and vote, if you consume and take up space, if you exist in the world as Millhauser’s people do or indeed on any terms at all, you cannot insulate yourself from moral consequences and cannot elude the strange menacing figure who has been after you since you came into the world.
In presenting this quandary at the heart of existence, Kafka looked backward and forward, to all times and places. He foresaw some of the choices that his nation would face as it weighed how to oppose its conquering adversary in the 1940s. Czech identity has never posed easy questions. The decision of the Czech government in exile to organize the assassination of the high-ranking Nazi, Reinhard Heydrich, rid the world of a fiend with the blood of many thousands on his hands, but also led to the reprisals against the villages of Lidice and Ležáky in which thousands more innocent Czechs died.
Moral ambiguity, a lack of certainty so acute and profound that it endangers one’s mental health, manifest itself always and everywhere whether the setting is one as historically fraught as that Kafka’s nation faced, or the daily conflicts and tensions of attending high school in an era of relative prosperity, or the world of 2023 where we grapple with what to do about AI and Vladimir Putin.
Millhauser’s collection would not be half as strong without “Kafka in High School, 1959,” but don’t let it distract you from the other clever stories in the book. “Theater of Shadows” situates the reader within a suburb where an avant-garde theater proves so popular it makes darkness the cool new thing and soon everyone and everything in the town tends toward the dark as a fashion statement, an aesthetic, a way of life.
In “The Fight,” we are back in high school, where some kids loathe others for reasons they cannot logically justify, yet a scuffle on a street corner, in the absence of physical and moral courage, fails to turn into a proper fight. “Summer of Ladders” evokes a suburb where nearly everyone becomes obsessed with the use of a given implement to attain new heights, but people keep falling off their ladders, much like Icarus who flew too close to the sun and lost his DIY wings.
You do not need to have read Kafka to appreciate these stories. They have suburban Connecticut in their DNA. But, like Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika, they might well be the dreams of a modernist who never set foot on these shores yet whose genius presented the familiar, indeed the mundane, as we privately yearned someday to experience it and half-consciously believed it would emerge before our eyes.
(You can purchase Disruptions here ).