By Alvin Lu
“Not a poet-novelist,” a fictional Franz Kafka calls himself in Sonata in K. This hard-to-classify work about the misadventures of Kafka and a 38-year-old polyglot Japanese American interpreter named K in Los Angeles, Amerika’s weirdest city, is also poet Karen An-hwei Lee’s first novel.
Indeterminacy—what in Kafka appears as absurdity and arbitrariness colored by “Kafkaesque” dread and black humor—is here topsoil out of which grows a bewildering, if highly musical, array of flora and foodstuffs. The vortex of the “plot” is: what is Kafka? Is he a digital reproduction or a genetic one? Indeterminacy also serves as both the setting, which is rendered ecstatically, and the half-visible narrator, K, maybe a ghostly stand-in for the mercurial city itself, who, at one point, “vanish[es] into the Los Angeles ether.”
Lee’s at once melodic and percussive language-play, and a textual incoherence that seems only held together by that play, recalls William Carlos Williams’s imaginations: The Great Amerikan Novel. Like those works, it teases at, and consistently runs away from, significance. They also share a certain “off” sense of humor that does seem very much American, where Kafka was always dead-on.
There’s also a certain spirit of Asian American experimentalism, from a moment that culminated, I suppose, with the publication of Premonitions, that now seems more distant now than Williams’s. The sense, either in spite of or because they were written by Asian Americans, that these texts weren’t to be mined for definition or organization but openings they presented—Sonata in K has that lightness. Think of deeply weird novels from the period like In Heart of the Valley of Love or Tropic of Orange, where magical, science-fictional Los Angeles and half-visible Asian America both shared their definitions only by negation or potential. And somewhat in relation to each other, as very much the future of Amerika—Kafka’s, not the real one—that would never be arrived at.
Los Angeles was more apocalyptic then—the indelible image of helicopters spraying insecticide over the city in Cynthia Kadohata’s book, or the early novels of Steve Erickson—but it was also radically inclusive, in those works, maybe the only place that could be. In Sonata in K, apocalypse is more associated with Kafka’s 20th century of the Holocaust and nuclear death, but Los Angeles, more than ever, sprawls out. Maybe, as a sign of our minor era, mostly in trivial, if delightful, ways: as recipes, floral arrangements—the food, at least, seems to have gotten a lot better and in one memorable scene, that precedes a quite-good poem titled “A Short Autobiography of Perfume,” Kafka enters a parfumerie and concocts his own fragrance named after … himself. But mostly L.A. in Sonata in K is sound and light caught in Lee’s giddily unstable language.
At times the book seems nothing more than an excuse to pun on the endless implications of “Kafka in K-town” or be a series of intertwined running jokes consisting of the narrator’s patient batting away of regional stereotypes (to Kafka’s persistent noting of the lack of seasons: “We do have seasons with nuanced transitions,” “The changes from season to season, however, are subtle,” “There is a subtle change, Mister Kafka.”) This passage gives a sense of Lee’s humor and the way her sentences fold into one another like origami (another leitmotif):
Baklava is now available at the K-town café, so Kafka and I order one portion each. Kafka-san carries a sleek armada of ball-point hotel pens in his coat pocket. He pulls one and presses the tip onto a page of hotel stationary fished from his other pocket. He writes in blocked, declarative capitals, not in the cursive longhand of his handwritten manuscripts and letters.
What’re you writing, Mister Kafka?
Clever amusement, Mister Kafka.
Just a word game.
What about anagrams for Kafka?
Mmm, frowns Kafka. No Czech or German anagrams for my name exist, unless these are words in Arabic or Tuvan, as well. How strange for a word not to have any orthographically correct anagrams! Tragedy. Not even anorak, kayak, or carafe. Let’s try this again for my sisters’ sake. Concealed in all this nonsense may be a hidden anagram for sisterly love.
Nope, says Kafka. Matter of fact, all the anagrammatic letters appear to spell out baklava after a while. Better abandon this before my own last name become unrecognizable even to me.
Just a word game. What is Kafka? Why Kafka? Why him, here? Why “Kafka-san”? When Kafka decamps for the other 1980s postmodern city of the future, and is all the happier for it—it makes sense, right? Here in Los Angeles, though, Kafka is K is L.A. They’re all dissolved down into words, down to the letters. The book they compose is light as air and as pure potential escapes all that would weigh it down.
Sonata in K
Karen An-hwei Lee