The stories in Francis Levy’s collection The Kafka Studies Department are imaginative, wise, and unexpected in the best of ways.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“A collection of bleak and amusing literary short stories from Levy…A dark, sometimes funny, meditation on the absurd trials of life.”
The Kafka Studies Department is a prism of interconnected and intertwined tales. The stories examine feckless characters who are far from likable, but always recognizable and pointedly human in their failings. Besides Kafka himself, these short pieces owe something to the Twilight Zone and also the Tamla and Stax soul 45s of the ‘60s. I call the collection “emotional mysteries” since they all involve the kind of crimes people perpetrate on each other in the name of connection and love. Every act has its consequences. No one is free. Life is a balance sheet made of debits and credits. Kafka’ s The Trial and his parable In the Penal Colony influence many of these proceedings.
Deserie by The Charts
This classic doo-wop song underscores the notion of entrapment that runs through almost all of the stories. No one, and particularly those who fall in love, is exempt. The simple lyric, “Don’t know what you do to me” underscores both the beauty and pathos of this desire, “Deserie.”
Please, Mr. Postman by The Marvelettes
“There must be a letter today, from my boyfriend who’s so far away.” This song is one of the great essays on waiting. In “Good Times,” Spector, who appears in a number of stories in the collection, waits only for the day when he can prove himself to all the people who “had ever disdained him.”
“I’d like to get to know you. I’d like to make you mine.” Possession is the theme. “Breasts,” illustrated with a teardrop in the shape of a breast, points to the delusion that goes along with “having.” To Have and Have Not was how Hemingway put it.
You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) by Sylvester
What does it mean to be real? In “As I Lay Down,” a dream which appears totally real in sleep is lost forever when Fred, the central character, awakens.
Every Little Bit Hurts by Brenda Holloway
“Every time I cry, every night I sigh, why you treat me cold.” In “A Splendid Dish” Spector’s hatred of the woman he has married is only mollified when the tables are suddenly turned, with him becoming the object of her scorn.
Band of Gold by Freda Payne
The glass half empty theme runs through almost all the stories in The Kafka Studies Collection. In “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” Spector’s wife learns the truth about her husband’s infidelities and is left, indeed, with only her putative band.
Want Ads by Honey Cone
“You gotta put it in the want ads…” Spector knows what he wants but does he ever become cognizant of his needs? The answer is generally “no” to the extent that his dreams take precedence over the reality of his life.
Modern Love by David Bowie
“God and man don’t believe in Modern Love.” The word “love” is like an unstable element. Modern love might be defined by its very evanescence. What doesn’t exist with all its infinite possibility always wins over that which is here and now.
Road Runner by Junior Walker and the All-Stars
“I’m a road runner, baby. Can’t stay in one place too long.” “The Sprinter,” a homage to Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” portrays a runner whose discipline hides a death-like obsession to escape his self—in the physical and spiritual meanings of the word.
Clean up Woman by Betty Wright
”A clean up woman is a woman who gets all the love girls leave behind.” A woman picks up all the men who have been left. The boss falls for his secretary in the next recording. These 45s decribe both the human condition and the world Spector inhabits.
Secretary by Betty Wright
“It’s very ordinary for the secretary to take a man away from his wife.”
Tell it Like it Is by Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt and Gregg Allman
In “A Splendid Dish,” Spector’s wife gets her vengeance against an uncaring husband by excluding him from the delicious duck dinner she has cooked for somebody else.
“If you want something to play with go find yourself a toy.”
Here Comes the Judge by Pigmeat Markham
Judge, your honor I’m the one who introduced you to your wife”
“Life you son of a gun.”
Life is what my characters are all without exception sentenced to.
Sympathy For the Devil by The Rolling Stones
“I was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain.” Big shot?
The Liebestod from Tristan by Wagner. Lars von Trier plays this masterpiece of romanticism in Melancholia. “Liebestod” means literally love-death and it describes the romantic agony that infects many of the characters in the collection.
Make America Great Again by Pussy Riot
This is the first piece of political satire to exist in a parallel universe. It has nothing to do with The Kafka Studies Department and I include it here simply because I fell in love with the name of the group the minute I heard it.
Car Wash by Rose Royce
“You might never get rich.” Never say never.
Dance With Me by Peter Brown
“If you’re feeling sad and blue come on and dance with me.” You may feel like you have nothing left but if you put one foot ahead of the other, you’ll eventually step out onto the floor.
also at Largehearted Boy: