An enduring literary rumor has it that Gregor Samsa—the young cloth-salesman who wakes up to find himself possessed of vaguely "numerous" legs and a hard-plated back—is, specifically, a cockroach. Nabokov, fond of entomology, refuted the cockroach rumor to suggest Samsa was a beetle. John Updike has insinuated a centipede. But the power of Kafka's most famous story, The Metamorphosis, lies in the ruthless inexplicability of Gregor's affliction. The young man himself arrives at no exact conclusion about the insect he's become.
Lance Olsen's new novel Anxious Pleasures (Shoemaker & Hoard, 192 pages, $15) does for The Metamorphosis what Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead did for Hamlet: furnishes a familiar story with fresh dimensionality in order to creatively re-explore it. The punchy abstruseness of Kafka's tale gets diminished through such an approach, but that's OK, since Olsen intends, as Stoppard did, something far broader than a gimmicky rewrite. Anxious Pleasures achieves a thrillingly stereophonic effect as we flitter through the minds of Kafka's whole supporting cast, getting the Samsa family's story from everyone except the metamorphosed kid.
Olsen, an accomplished author whose stunning previous novel evoked the crazed final hours of Friedrich Nietzsche, successfully invests peripheral figures with lives and histories of their own. Here are Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, she fretful and asthmatic, he an embittered veteran; here's Gregor's sister Grete, who harbors musical ambitions and suffers a rape; the Samsas' servant girl, estranged from her mother; their cook, a cockney; the chief clerk, a workaholic whose wife and daughter have just run out on him; the three lodgers (presented in a darkly comical fourth-person voice).
Most fascinating are Olsen's moments of more expansive, speculative reach. He renders a young Franz Kafka in the apartment below the Samsas, lying on his bed and listening to their commotion through his ceiling, trying to imagine what on earth could be happening up there. In a deliciously allusive twist, Olsen creates an absent Samsa son who assumes the vocation of a hunger artist (see that other famous Kafka story). Sporadic chapters follow a modern-day Londoner called Margaret as she whiles away her hours in the British Museum reading The Metamorphosis and a body of critical commentary regarding it. But Olsen's "unwriting" of Kafka gets most daring and literarily subversive early on, when through Gregor's doorway the Samsas behold a naked, frightened young man whose transformation is wholly mental. .