The game to play as theorists have been playing it since 1915 is to decide the meaning of George Samsa’s insectile character (as J. Robert Lennon would describe him). I’m partial to that interpretation: it’s an insectile character, which makes the physical look and whether George is “in fact” a n insect or not irrelevant. Kafka didn’t want Samsa illustrated for a reason. He’s imprisoned in a state of mind. Don’t imprison him in a physical depiction. The first line has been translated in many different ways: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” An insect, a vermin, nothing more specific. vermin and insects feed on the dead. This is a story of decomposition before our eyes–the decomposition of an ill and mentally and physically disfigured Samsa, the decomposition of a family, the decomposition of what had once been a loving relationship between Samsa and Grete, who becomes Samsa’s killer: “she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure,” the opposite of her brother’s decomposition. Gregor’s father, as in every Kafka story so far, doesn’t elicit sympathy either. But there’s nothing sentimental about the story. Kafka isn;t pulling at strings to get the reader all in knots over Gregor’s condition. It becomes more uncomfortably familiar than imaginary as the story wears on–as Gregor decomposes. A sick, leprous person has the characteristics of an insect. Doesn;t have to look like one to feel like one. It is a story of illness, decline, of being discarded.
Karen Russell can so convince you that the soul of a Joshua tree can jump into a human being, body-snatcher-like, and become a thinking, acting part of her that she can have you on the verge of Googling the possibilities. Angie is “three years sober and still struggling to find her mooring on dry land.” Andy is a “reader” with the words ever unfixed, from Melville, tattooed on his arm. They’ve eloped but aren’t married. “They’re in the Mojave desert. The Mojave “was a good place to launch into exile together.” Near Warren Peak, where the Joshua trees are, “the bad graft occurs.” The tree invades Angie. “For the rest of her life, she will be driven to return to the park, searching for the origin of the feeling that chooses this day to invade her and make its home under her skin,” a “ghostly leap” from the “pulsating” joshua. “The change is metaphysical: the tree’s spirit is absorbed into the migrating consciousness, where it lives on, intertwined with its host.” Kind of like this:
It’s neo-magical realism, a style The New Yorker seems to be fond of (Lennon’s “Loop” is too similar), that Russell excels at, but that has the same sort of limitations, the same convenience, as faith-based narratives: once you cross that threshold anything goes after all. It’s too facile. It depends a great deal on the writer’s imaginative capabilities. Russell’s are endless. You read Russell for those leaps, the luminousness of her prose, the tendrils of insights it allows: “This insoluble spirit, this refugee from the Joshua tree, understands itself to have leapt into Hell. The wrong place, the wrong vessel. It pulses outward in a fuzzy frenzy of investigation, flares greener, sends out feelers. Compared with the warm and expansive desert soil, the human body is a cul-de-sac.”
A lot of threads are left dangling: the girl’s previous addiction, the boy’s poorly realized character, their ability to live month after month in that desert no land. The end is purposefully ambiguous. We never know whether she actually emerges from the last encounter with the trees, though that earlier line suggests the unspoken future: “For the rest of her life, she will be driven to return to the park…”