Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Graphic Metamorphosis


The opening of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa awakes to discover he has been transformed into a man-sized cockroach, stands as one of the most recognizable moments in all of the Twentieth Century literature. If you've never read the story, Peter Kuper's graphic novel adaptation can serve as a fine introduction, and if you have, it will make you see the story in a whole new horrifyingly funny way.

Because, when the novel opens, being turned into a bug is not Gregor's biggest problem. No, weighing much more heavily on Gregor’s mind is that he is late for work. He has to figure out how to get out of bed, how to collect his salesman's samples, how to get dressed and how to catch the morning train. Gregor has been so terrorized by his bosses and is so obsessed with making money to pay off his family's debts that being stuck on his beetle-shell back with six spindly legs waving in the air pales in comparison.

And while Gregor recognizes the horror of becoming a vermin, the difficulty it might present, he is only devastated when his condition results in losing his traveling salesman job.

This is horrifying, agonizingly sad, and . . . well . . . kinda funny. For us, nearly 100 years later, The Metamorphosis can serve as something of a morality tale for our "uncertain economic times."


Peter Kuper's graphic novel adaptation fits perfectly into this landscape of eerie, comical horror. The use of a white on black background puts everything into comic-book negative, creating an appropriately nightmarish aura. Most of the characters are drawn broadly, as they are written: Gregor's sister Grete is a cute cartoon figure with a terrified expression pasted on her face, what might have happened if Blondie Bumstead had posed for Edvard Munch's The Scream; Gregor's father is a puffed out man with an over-sized angry head taken from an Otto Dix painting; and his mother looks quite simply like a corpse. Gregor is the most grotesque of all but is given the most emotional breadth: he is depicted as a beetle with a head still vaguely recognizable as a human. Kuper uses all of Gregor's attributes, from both man and insect, to convey his perpetually conflicting emotions. Graphic elements like off-kilter frames and jaggedly outlined dialog balloons contribute more to the edgy aura.

Not everything translates perfectly. The novel gets some of its horror from the visceral elements of being a bug--the ooze, the stench, the sticky and rotting stuff. Kuper's stark graphics can't really portray this kind of thing, and he doesn't really try, focusing on the story's other horrifying elements instead.

One of these is that Gregor never stops being human. He never loses the ability to hear others talking about him, although they assume he has and thus are not at all careful free in what they say. He never loses the ability to feel love, rejection, humiliation, and, finally, betrayal. What remains of his humanity Kuper expresses in his large terrified eyes, revealing an inner horror more terrifying than his invertebrate exterior.

As countless other commentators have pointed out, The Metamorphosis can be read in a number of ways, as a religious allegory, as social commentary, or as an expressionistic expose of a tortured human soul. Still, what struck me upon rereading it this time, both because of Kuper's adaptation and because of current events, is how much the story is about employment, about jobs. Even after the opening scene, Gregor continues to obsess about his lost employment as much as about being a bug. He recalls how he counted down the days until he could tell off his bosses. He swells with pride when he thinks about how he rescued his family from certain doom, working his way up from stock clerk to traveling salesman, after his father's business collapsed in an economic downturn. And he shrinks with shame when he considers all they have to go through now that he can no longer work. His retirement-age father must return to work as a bank messenger. His mother brings in sewing and his teenage sister becomes a salesgirl. The family also brings in three demanding borders who discover the family's secret shame, Gregor.

In the end, the conflict between Gregor's point of view and his family's creates the deepest irony. To Gregor, work has been mostly torture and humiliation, a life metaphorically like the one he adopts as a bug, but his family has come to find that work means something different to them. The story ends with the family, minus Gregor, riding a train together, and the three remaining members deciding that they each actually like their jobs. It seems mundane, but in this story it's the equivalent of Jason popping up out of the lake to terrify the audience one last time. Everything Gregor was about, all of his sacrifice, was for naught. All along, his family would have been happy, happier even, going to work! SKREET SKREET SKREET SKREET!

Is there a moral? I don't know. But if it's about jobs, I'd get a good one if I were you. Stay in school. Find something you love and work like hell at it. Don't let what happened to Gregor Samsa happen to you . . .

Check out the book's website. The opening movie is well worth a visit and provides and excellent preview of the book.

Ebook versions of the original, translated by David Wyllie, are available free at Project Gutenberg.

This post has been crossposted at Critique de Mr. Chompchomp


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