Book Review

Sonata in K is the first novella by Chinese American poet, academic, and translator Karen An-hwei Lee. At its most basic level, Sonata is a thought experiment. It asks: What if Kafka were brought back to life and saw the late-stage capitalism whose arrival he presaged? But dig deeper and Sonata’s true subject looks to be authorship itself. What makes an author the definitive arbiter of his work’s meaning? How can authority extend from a single point of origin when an author is available only through interpretation? In other words, how do we settle on a meaning when a signifier is unmoored from its Kafka-sign?

Sonata opens with K, here “an American-born Japanese woman,” who is to be Kafka-san’s translator on his Los Angeles trip. At the airport, K meets a man with the “trimmed candour of an actuarial scribe.” It is Kafka-san. He presents her with a box of wasabi-flavored chocolates. But who is this Kafka-san? His “macadam road of fled memories is cobbled haphazardly: from biographies, letters, and inked ephemera.” K wonders whether he is a “three-dimensional hologram,” a clone from a bone fragment, or a resurrected body “à la Lazarus.” Regardless, as an epigraph states, “Kafka-san is not Franz Kafka.” He is a simulation, a “post-Kafka image of the late Kafka.” He is no longer tubercular, for instance. He speaks English. And he is still, somehow, alive.

It transpires that Kafka-san has been brought back to life by two movie producers, who seek his guidance in adapting one of his novellas (a love story between a girl and a rhinoceros). Kafka-san (rightly) insists that he never wrote this novella. His increasingly fraught movie meetings are intercut with mealtime conversations with K. There are some delightful comedic moments when Kafka-san tells K his impressions of various American conveniences. He deems antibiotics, electric blankets, and Segways impressive, but he is less enthusiastic about pasteurized milk, modern ice hockey, and the bewildering number of types of orange. Still, this excitement gives way as the producers point out that if Kafka-san does not play ball, he can be replaced. His ironic comments on the absurdity he sees around him turn, like the pervasive LA smog, to ashy particulate. Los Angeles strikes him as a pointless place. But how to be passionate about this meaninglessness when everything, even his own being, is ersatz?

Many of the questions that Lee explores are found in the works of Kafka. In the surface obsession of LA we see the same gap between appearance and reality that imbues The Trial and The Castle with so much dark uncertainty. In Lee’s novella, Los Angeles is described as “a radiolucent subterranean garage” where

holistic micronutrient dieticians, actress-slash-models without auditions, certified nurse’s assistants on vacation, technofuturist cosmetologists who work as marriage counsellors or vice-versa, orthopedic surgeons who operate on each other, professors of intellectual design, post-expressionist graffiti artists who desire fame, non-profit micropress haiku editors . . . run at a frenzied pace in towers of barbituates, pills, and shattered celebrity dreams. The garage vibrates with the rhythm of their spirits, a dioxide-tainted universe of nanoparticles in a roaring aquarium of steel-tentacled ambition.

Such defamiliarization resensitizes us to the absurdities of our culture and excoriates enterprise under capitalism. A city held up at the height of glamour is seen by Kafka-san as a rubbish sale of those who have transformed themselves into hyperspecialized objects designed to catch the eye of the powers that be.

Despite this intellectual commonality, however, Sonata is more an incantation of Kafka than an instantiation of his style. That Lee has published many books of poetry should not come as a surprise to readers. Her willingness to move into figurative language and stay there, her ability to set words in a startling sequence, her attention to typography, her inclusion of blank verse letters from Kafka-san to Max Brod, her sliding from thought into dialogue without tagging, her infusion of the medical and scientific with lyric beauty—all of these signal a poetic consciousness operating within the conventions of prose, and perhaps enlivening them. Morsels of radicchio “hum a blue thesis of bitterness” on a tongue, and a radish is apotheosized as a “dirt-bound root, humblest of exhumed angels . . . the mineral blood-dew of the earth.” Whole milk is “skimmed cave-water,” an airport terminal the “kiss-and-cry area.” Meanwhile, the “silicate lung of Los Angeles caresses its denizens with fly-flecked mannequin dust, parched blue ozone, and a billion industrial tons of jeweled diamond grit, a wry incandescence.” When the light hits such prose, it creates a kaleidoscope as varied as the interpretations of The Metamorphosis. Lee’s ticking intellect is not a barrier to enjoyment; combined with the lushness of her language, it is an exhortation to see the world anew.

One of the most unusual features of Sonata is how Lee includes italicized phrases from German, Yiddish, Czech, and Japanese, which is apropos in a book so concerned with translation. But it is worth noting that Lee almost always uses words that English speakers have some knowledge of or that are close cognates. The effect is that a non-German speaker can read an outburst of the effusive Kafka-san—“So verwunderlich is Amerika”—and understand his sense by sound. “Polyglottal” is the right word to describe such writing: it captures the words’ fusion of denotative precision and onomatopoeia.

This multivocality is just one way in which Lee shows her profound faith in the capacities of her readers. By which I mean that Sonata is demanding. Not because of the references; knowledge of Kafka’s life is ancillary to the reader’s pleasure as much biographical information is effortlessly integrated. What makes the book challenging is its meandering structure. Kafka’s novels often have this structure as well, but in Sonata, the dread and terror of Kafka’s works are replaced by whimsy and contemplation. The effect is a dissipation of narrative tension. And there is just so much to take in, especially the many postmodern narrative techniques, such as how “Sonata in K” is the title of the book, the title of the book’s last chapter division, and the name of the novella that Kafka-san is “helping” to adapt. In Sonata, Lee has created a rich and fecund assemblage, but one that only readers who like playing around in the muck heap of language will truly appreciate.

Near the end of the novella, Kafka-san tries to fight his mounting depression. To aid him, K quotes Albert Einstein: “You can live as if nothing is a miracle / or you can live as if everything is.” Lee’s novella takes the everything of life, sounds it out for sense, and still finds it senseless. But how she takes Kafkaesque questions of being and illuminates them with the complex light of globalized postmodernity is a marvel.


About the Reviewer

Kate Osana Simonian is an Armenian-Australian essayist, short-story writer, and novelist hailing from Sydney. She's completing her Creative Writing PhD at Texas Tech, while on a Presidential Fellowship. Her work has been published by Kenyon Review Online, Ninth Letter, Passages North, Post Road, the Chicago Tribune, and Best Australian Stories. She has won honors including the Nelson Algren Award, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writer's Conference, and the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Writer-in-Residence position for 2018. As well as an associate editor for Iron Horse, she's the fiction editor for Opossum: A Literary Marsupial, a journal on the intersection of literature and music. Her novel-in-stories is coming along, but check her out before then at