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Henry Kafka

by Stuart Ross

You’ve probably had dreams like these. You know the ones: They unfold in your head like elaborate 3-D movies. You watch with a sense of detachment, marvelling at the intricate yet coherent plotting, the compelling symbolism, the sudden turns that strike you as both surprising and inevitable. As you begin to wake up, believing your subconscious has handed you a brilliant short story or screenplay, you vow to write the whole thing down. But once you’re fully awake, you realize the story makes absolutely no sense at all.

Stuart Ross, it seems to me, has been having a lot of these dreams and writing them down. Reading Henry Kafka is as much fun as dreaming in colour. Like the proto-Surrealist stories of Guillaume Apollinaire, these are lyrical, deadpan tales in which anything can happen. Tiny live monkeys rain from the ceiling of a restaurant. Awakened in the dead of night by a defective car horn, a man calls the police, who pick him up and drive him into the desert for no apparent reason. Pterodactyls occasionally appear. Ross’s characters are often so overwhelmed by the chaotic potential of their world that they can barely function; like neurological patients out of an Oliver Sacks casebook, they mistake objects for people, are terrified by newspapers and cups of coffee, and forget who their parents are.

All is not random weirdness, however. A streak of literary parody runs through the book. Writing teachers routinely tell students to reveal plot-related information naturally, through dialogue, but in Ross’s hands this technique becomes downright unnatural: “One of the guys said, ‘Are we brothers?’”

“Yep, we’re brothers,” the other one said. “I’m Jeff and you’re Eli.”

Some of the stories have a kind of shadowy allegorical quality, implicitly condemning a disjointed world view that allows people to disavow responsibility towards others. “The Wedding Dress,” a short political fable that almost makes sense, reads like something Dario Fo might write in his sleep.

What prevents the collection from becoming irritatingly obscure is Ross’s talent for rendering the strangest events in clear, concise prose. As is the case with dreams, it’s tempting to try to analyze these stories as though they contain encoded meanings, but it’s much more enjoyable to just let them happen, without trying too hard to fit them into the logic of the waking world.