May 27, 2024

A Cage Went in Search of a Bird

By Tommy Orange
10 contemporary writers (Ali Smith! Tommy Orange!) apply their considerable talents to the signature style of Franz Kafka in this anthology.
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Conceived as a tribute to Franz Kafka on the 100th anniversary of his death, A Cage Went in Search of a Bird: Ten Kafkaesque Stories features short stories by 10 contemporary writers in the idiosyncratic style of the literary genius, a style Merriam-Webster defines as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” Watching writers that include Ali Smith and Tommy Orange apply their considerable talent to this task makes for a mind-bending and consistently enjoyable reading experience.

One of the principal pleasures of this project is the range of subject matter and variety of styles the authors bring to their stories. In “God’s Doorbell,” for example, Naomi Alderman reimagines the biblical account of the Tower of Babel in a fashion that seems especially relevant to our current concerns with the promise and peril of artificial intelligence. Yiyun Li’s “Apostrophe’s Dream” is a whimsical piece presented in the form of a dramatic work featuring squabbling punctuation marks as its characters.

But when one thinks of Kafka’s short stories, what most often surfaces is the image of an individual trapped in a bizarre, inexplicable situation. The volume features several works in that genre, among them Elif Batuman’s “The Board,” where the prospective purchaser of an apartment confronts the baffling commentary of the building’s implacable governing body. In “Headache,” by Leone Ross, the protagonist is drawn against her will into an increasingly problematic health care system.

Screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman has acknowledged Kafka as an early influence, and so it’s fitting that the collection ends with his story, “This Face Can Even Be Proved by Means of the Sense of Hearing,” whose enigmatic title comes from an entry in Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks. In Kaufman’s story, a novelist identified only as “I.” descends, after a disastrous launch event for his latest novel, into an ever more complex and seemingly inescapable literary labyrinth as his identity shape-shifts, blurring the boundary between fact and fiction.

A Cage Went in Search of a Bird is a roller coaster ride that will delight the adventuresome reader, even if the twists and turns of some of its most daring stories may challenge those who enjoy more conventional short fiction. Somewhere, though, it’s easy to imagine Kafka paging through these varied and deeply imagined tales and nodding in admiration.

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