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Anxious Pleasures: A Novel After Kafka

This novel re-imagines The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka’s story of Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning as a bug. Samsa’s point of view is crucial to The Metamorphosis, but Lance Olsen focuses on those who witness the inexplicable, unsettling transformation: his sister, his parents, the chief clerk, the servant girl, the cook, the charwoman, and three lodgers. Anxious Pleasures expands the story to these peripheral characters and ones who never even met the new Samsa: a cashier who he casually dated, his sister’s suitor, and the neighbor downstairs. Olsen also introduces other dimensions with the voice of Margaret, a young shoe store clerk in contemporary England who is reading The Metamorphosis for a book club; Margaret’s grandparents, Neddie and Nellie, who are missing in the English countryside; and literary criticism of Kafka’s work.

Anxious Pleasures depicts Samsa as a humanoid insect: “a dim bluish-white wedge bobbing in the blackness...and the human head... peeking... around the shut wing.” The insect imagery is placed in the world outside of Samsa– the apartment is “divided into regular segments like... a brown bug’s belly,” sister Grete resembles a cricket, the three lodgers “move...like...part of the same spider in shabby black.” Samsa retains his humanity– those around him become questionable. Yet Olsen’s hybrid imagery demonstrates that no one is completely “other.” Samsa’s family becomes Samsa– his transformation is their own.

Metaphorical, descriptive language is what lends the most power to Anxious Pleasures. There is a reference to the hidden wings that beetles rarely use: “It was as if they had forgotten they were even there.” This observation resonates the desire for fulfillment within all the characters, particularly Margaret, who walks through the British Museum with an ache in her shoulder– an embodiment of her own hidden wings?

Despite these evocative images, Olsen stays resolutely attached to an academic intellect. A studied attention to details subtly and overtly reveals the era, class, gender and education level of each character. Although Olsen’s metaphoric imagery connects these disparate voices into a cohesive narrative, the emotional depth of individual characters is only half-explored. Instead, literary criticism becomes the authoritative voice with frequent excerpts from essays on Kafka. This structure can be thought-provoking, but often feels disruptive and pedantic.

Anxious Pleasures could uncover more of its own hidden wings – vivid metaphors and language – and allow itself to take flight.

Written by: Andrea Dulanto, February 3rd 2007

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