Kafka and Wallace and Funniness and Escape

In his essay on Kafka, DFW writes, “great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common” (61).   DFW believes this to be true because of something called exformation, which is the technique some writers have of withholding some information so that all the little facts we get while reading build up into some big bang at the end of the story / joke.

I at first thought that this was a pretty good description of DFW’s writing style, too.   For example, if we throwback to Broom, his choice to leave out the final word at the end of the novel had huge implications for the power of speech (and silence) after the entire novel had been about language from the beginning.

But DFW then goes on to describe Kafka’s particular brand of humor.   He calls Kafka’s humor “actually sort of unsubtle — or rather anti subtle” (63) and on the previous page wrote that this type of humor is difficult for Americans to “get.”   And he’s right; although I found the short Kafka story about the cat and the mouse of page 60 to be slightly amusing, I wouldn’t say that I at first found it funny, and even when I did consider it funny, it took me awhile to figure out why or how.  

Thankfully DFW explains the why and how on page 63: “Kafka’s funniness depends on some kind of radical literalization of truths we tend to treat as metaphorical.”   This sentence destroyed my comparison of Kafka’s type of humor with DFW’s type of humor.   I believe that a lot of DFW’s humor is extremely subtle.   It’s full of the kinds of jokes you don’t “get” until a few sentences or a page later, when something makes you look back and you realize there was a joke encoded in the text the whole time.   I guess this does fit the definition of “exformation” as DFW describes it, but it still seems to be very different from Kafka’s kind of humor.

In the last couple pages of the essay, DFW reminds us that Kafka’s humor is not an escapist kind of humor, but rather a humor that is almost too realistic, one that gets too close to the physical horror of being human that we are all trying to escape.   Kafka forces us to realize that “our endless and impossible journey home is in fact our home” (64-65).   This, too, seems to be totally opposite from DFW’s goal in his writing.   We always talk in class about how DFW writes about escape (just look at everything on addiction in IJ, escaping the loop of irony in American culture).  

DFW is clearly preoccupied with escaping the boundaries of modern society, but it is hard to pinpoint an example where DFW has successfully gotten a character to escape.   I mean escape like forever, not just being lost in a tennis game for an hour.   If he could not succeed in finding the escape, does that mean that his humor is more like Kafka’s than I thought?   Are all of his attempts to escape really just examples of how our home is the journey home that we think we are on?

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