Noctambulist? No, he's just walking in his sleep.
Short stories are a strange breed. On top of that, there is a certain strain of writing that only drives reviewers to invoke Kafka in order to pin down the artistry of a given author. If I were to take a representative sampling of book jackets on short story collections, my guess is that a majority would reference the Central European sage. Of course, “kafka-esque” is a classification that carries a tremendous amount of baggage—to the extent that it has probably lost any real specificity.
So when I say that Peter Spielberg’s stories are “Kafka-esque,” I should add to that an explanation.
These tales flirt with notions of archetype: they make use of our desire to read meta-characters as stand-ins for veracity and personal experience. Divorced from themselves, lost in systems that they cannot control, the characters continue to insist on living their lives as if they were important. If they were complex individuals, fleshed out and quirky, they would not play the didactic role that they so effectively take on. Somewhere between Calvino and Kafka, Spielberg’s writing is deeply European and tinged with modernism in a way that has been long abandoned by many of his contemporaries. Inside this world, characters are vehicles. They are phonemes that stand for societies, for sad, but not necessarily sympathetic situations. The inhabitants are artists, each struggling to overcome their own sense of alienation.
Of all the stories in this rich and humorous collection, “Cry Wolf” seems to best capture the nature of Spielberg’s literary preoccupations. This is the story of two brothers, children of Jewish immigrant parents raised in a Manhattan that was post-War and pre-Disney. The parents spend their lives in fear of being sent back to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s shelter for indigent refugees, a dormitory near the Lower East Side that had served as their home for some months on their arrival in the US. 40 years later, even when the former HIAS building is turned into an avant-garde theater, the former immigrants continue to live with the haunting specter of a time of living frugally as the world grew wealthy around them, never knowing when poverty and displacement might suddenly strike. As the brothers age, they come to terms with the fears of a previous generation, forced eventually to acknowledge that their parents’ perceptions must, by nature, coincide with their own visions of the world—regardless of the changes in American society over time.
As a reader, what I come away with is the radical notion that modes of perception don’t simply disappear as new visions come into existence.
In a similar way, Spielberg’s approach, quaint as it seems in a world that is steeped in PoMo theory—marked by attention to the individual and her relationship to subjective reality rather than the perceived alienation from the universal that characterized an earlier era—resonates with a past that remains unchanged in spite of new ways of looking at it. And what Spielberg begins to do is to turn this outmoded lens on a different world, reminding us of the skeletal structure of its own past while reveling in the coevality of a new world with new issues.
Which brings me back to Kafka. How long will the voice of the “modern” protagonist be viable? Will there come a time when kafka-esque is an inappropriate myth? For my money, there will always be a new way to abuse history, so I can’t really see that time approaching, but it could happen. In the mean time, we can try to see new visions and can continue to be excited about their novelty, but if we are to learn anything from Peter Spielberg, there will always be room for the voice of every generation.