Netgalley Purge 2: The Unhappiness of Being A Single Man | Book Review

One of the perks of being a book blogger, is the opportunity to pre-read books that are about to be published. Netgalley is one of the sites where people like me can become overly ambitious and request more books than they can read. Last year, I downloaded about 15 electronic books from Netgalley that I planned to read and review but didn’t get to for a while. Now that we’re in a new year, I need to wipe the slate clean before I will allow myself to request anything new so I’ll be reading those galleys this month. Some of the titles have since been published, and are so old that I now have finished copies of the books on my shelves but the process, I believe, will be cathartic. A few days ago, I reviewed the first of the books – an essay collection entitled Me, My Hair and I (click to read my article if you missed it)

Today, I finished reading a new translation of Franz Kafka’s short stories, a  collection entitled The Unhappiness of Being  A Single Man: Essential Stories 

Book Details

There are 22 stories in a collection that spans under 200 pages so most of the stories are just a few pages. For an author most well-known for his novels, the most famous being The Metamorphosis, the translator’s preface proposes that the short stories are probably not as famed because novels sell better but that Kafka’s best writing was in the form of his short stories. Not having read any of his novels before, I can’t say I can make the comparison myself but I was thoroughly impressed by some of the writing included here. Below are the notes I wrote on the first 5 stories in the collection:

  1. A Message from the Emperor begins with a great opening line aimed toward the reader, immediately inviting the reader to become the main character of the story. The emperor – they say – has sent you, you alone, his lowly subject, you tiny shadow thrown far off into the furthest corner by the imperial sun, you, of all people, the Emperor has sent a message from his deathbed. I think that is so intriguing, a great opening that immediately makes me want to recoil from being the plebeian lowly at whom such scorn is being directed, but also curious about what the message could contain. Am I secretly the empress I have always considered myself to be? However, the story, if it is indeed that, ends as enigmatically as it begins because within a few short paragraph, it is over, leaving in its wake, more questions than I had before he began, the messenger, carrying that tale trapped in time and space. This is writing to be admired, descriptions that alternate between time and space, meandering through luxurious ease and frantic pace and every change evoked a different emotion and brought a different kind of energy.
  2. A Short Fable was an even smaller offering in that the whole story occurs in 89 words. Yes, I counted them, however I think the author’s skill is in how much he included in those 89 words so not a character was wasted as he described a cat-and-mouse game, the prey’s questions of self discovery and with other things, forgetting for too long what his real problem is.
  3. The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man was another example of flash-fiction; this time the author used just 176 words to explore the reality of bachelorhood, immediately stereotyping his hypothetical character as not just unmarried but alone, lonely, friendless, childless, eternally poor and eking out a cold existence in a rented room. It contrasts with the idea of the bachelor playboy, single by choice, a roster of model companions at his beck and call. Instead, Kafka focuses on the lack of complexity and compares it to a thick fog from which said single character will eventually emerge to recognize himself with regret and these sparse but pregnant words, immediately challenge the reader, whatever their position in the relationship spectrum, to reassess before it is too late to change.
  4. Poseidon posits an alternate view of the man behind the myth. What do we know about the sea god? Can we imagine him isolated by his power? Is that visual enough to conjure sympathy or do we prefer to reinforce the idiom we already believe that, “It is (and supposed to be) lonely at the top”?
  5. The Verdict is one of the longest stories and in it, Kafka posits three characters, one a young single businessman named Georg who has been unsuccessful enough in his work to have moved back home to live with his father after his mother’s death; his nameless friend, also a struggling entrepreneur, who has returned to his native Russia and found the landscape sufficiently changed and the culture so different that although he should be at home, he is isolated; and finally Georg’s widowed father. Indeed, all the characters are identical, although Georg thinks himself superior, his situation better, and the inclusion of Georg’s musings as he reflects on his friend and his father, reveal that his criticisms would be better aimed at himself. Kafka’s sardonic attitude gleams in this story, and the conglomeration of roles in a single identity gives the reader the opportunity to perhaps recognize the author’s hypothesis that Georg, and all his alternate personalities, may just be the reader himself.

Overall, the stories spanned a wide range of themes and issues, mocking, advising, rendering hope and fatality so it was quite an emotional-jerker. It took me less than two hours to read the entire book but it is one that I think I would like to revisit. I enjoyed the title which seems to draw conclusions about the life of the singleton, and then the rest of the text which offers many, more complex versions of reality, lonesomeness, solitude, and the threats that companionship poses.

I read a free electronic copy of this book courtesy of Netgalley and the publishers, Pushkin Press, but this did not influence my opinions. This is a book I genuinely enjoyed would like to own for my shelves. I feel confident recommending it to fans of other complex short story collections like Things We Lost In The Fire by Mariana Enriquez and novels like Matt Haig’s The Humans and The Peculiar Life of the Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault

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