Thaddeus Rutkowski, Violent Outbursts (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2015)
A reader of Thaddeus Rutkowski’s new book of short fiction, Violent Outbursts, might be tempted to compare him to a number of writers, though not Kafka. Kafka writes in a dead-plain style, eschewing the prose hijinks Rutkowski often utilizes. (Rutkowski’s “McDonald’s Mania,” for instance, is an exercise in using M words: “Or maybe we’ll have to much alone, meditating on the McNuggets before us and mouthing our mantra: ‘MMmm.’”) As importantly, Kafka was steeped in Jewish tradition, meditating deeply on such themes as that of the Messiah who never comes, themes that are alien to this contemporary author.
Yet, even so, there is a deep affinity here. If I may be so bold, let me draw a parallel that some may find implausible. Rutkowski works as a “clerk,” taking that occupational category broadly, writing in what leisure moments he can snatch from his job and family. This, itself, suggests that he will emphasize succinctness in his creative activity. But that’s not the only parallel. The cramped lifestyle in the bureaucratic cubbyhole of an office (and I speak from experience) gives one almost a purity of alienation, doing tasks whose meaninglessness is blatantly evident compared to, say, teaching where functionaries tend to believe in the significance of their meaningless tasks. The purity of the clerk’s position as a tool of his or her employers makes, I think, for lucidity of style and worldview.
The Canadian sociologist Michael Kaufman underlines the brand of alienation in these clerkly professions in this passage from Beyond Patriarchy. “The daily work of industrial, class societies is one of violence. Violence poses as economic rationality as some of us are turned in to extensions of machines while others become brains detached from bodies.”
As we know from Kafka, this clerkly worldview can be wielded with genius. This shared social placement with its accompanying worldview accounts for the deep affinities in the writing of these authors, noticeable in their curious (almost zestful) appreciation of their own insignificance; their indirect handling of satire; and their presentation of a very interesting exit strategy from the clerkly profession.
Of course, both authors are more than the perspectives of their jobs, and so their works are richer than I am suggesting, but let me confine myself in this short space to these few points.
The pleasure Rutkowski takes in his characters’ self-abasement, something we also know from Dostoyevsky, comes out in such stories as the one that begins, “A friend asks me to join a club to which he belongs to.” It continues:
The club’s activities are writing and singing. One of the leaders is a writer I know; I respect his talent. But he’s a nerd. This is a nerd club. Nerds might welcome me, but I don’t want to be a nerd.
As you can guess, the narrator protests too much. More explicitly, if less humorously, in another short piece, the narrator tells us, “I didn’t even win a high-school science fair prize because I was too depressed to participate. I couldn’t create a poster showing cause and effect, margin of error and standard deviation, because I was too busy being a deviant.” These quotes should suggest the pizzazz with which Rutkowski portrays the misadventures of his hangdog hero. Kafka’s Amerika is filled with such episodes.
A second point is that when Rutkowski turns his satirical hammer on our bureaucratic society, he purposely aims for glancing blows, not direct hits. Often this takes the form of seeing an absurd situation and injecting yet more nonsense into it.
For a parallel in Kafka, there’s the scene in The Trial in which K is summoned to a courtroom. After various embarrassing and off-the-wall occurrences, the trial abruptly and inconclusively ends. K returns the next week, expecting to continue with his case, only to find the room empty. He approaches the bench, wondering what booklets the judges kept consulting during the court proceedings. He finds a slew of pornography. The courts are not just corrupt but are permeated by an unsettling incongruity.
Rutkowski accomplishes something similar by making interesting slippages in presentation, say, between an idle thought and its sudden embodiment. Take the story when the narrator, an author, is toying with his pen, and begins to consider what other kinds of writing instrument he might use, “maybe a Bic pen, a spring-loaded click pen, a generic stick pen, or a quill pen. Yes, a quill pen, the kind used in ages past.” In a few more sentences, his desire for a quill leads to direct action. “I heard a squawk [outside] that signaled the presence of a large, sightless bird. I fetched a pair of pliers and brought the tool with me as I went toward the sound.”
Here’s how the narrator views the pretensions of his noble relatives. He notes, first, that “they lived in California and were 100 percent. I wondered how long that bloodline would stay pure.” Rather than take a direct swipe at such phoniness, he literalizes. “Was my cousins’ blue blood because it was 100 percent? Was my blood 50 percent – in other words, 50 percent red and 50 percent blue? Was my blood purple?”
In the same misdirecting way, he assesses the 9 to 5 grind. “So forty, sixty hours a week I’m there at my desk, in front of the screen like a pilot at the controls of a plane that can’t land.” That’s half his life. “The other half happens,” the narrator says, “when I open my mailbox and discover the bills.”
But it’s not just bills that keep functionaries, clerks like Kafka and Rutkowski, at the controls of their desks. It’s a more visceral fear of losing one’s precarious place in the lower middle class, what used to be called fear of proletarianization. I believe this anxiety forms a structuring background to The Trial, in that the prosecution makes it difficult for him to attend to his work, so K risks getting sacked. In Rutkowski’s work, there is the ever-present existence of ill paid, contingent labor as an anxiety producing ingredient. In one story, a taxi driver admits he can barely get by on his salary. “I have to get other jobs. I’m also a bottle recycler and a coffee vendor.” Even more threatening is complete exclusion from paid labor. One poor person is advised to chew gum so that he will not appear to be homeless. “Store any unchewed gum with your other valuables, in a shopping cart in a warm, dry corridor of the subway.”
The fears and woes of these authors’ positions is not straight-ahead satire, but oblique, half-concealed wit, which adds a level of complexity to their creations. To go back to the homeless tale just mentioned to illustrate this, the author doesn’t tell you that you might become homeless if the job market sours. He tells you how to avoid seeming to be homeless. Meanwhile, although this is not said, it would seem if you stored things in subway cars in shopping carts you already are homeless.
This leads to the last link between Rutkowski and Kafka, and a very telling one it is. One interpretation of The Metamorphosis is that Gregor Samsa’s transmogrification into an insect is a literalization of his insect-like existence as a put-upon son and traveling salesman. Okay, but what about other Kafka pieces such as The Burrow or Josephine, where the leading characters are, from the start, naturally born animals? When the possibility of escaping the lower middle class through success, or due to the offices of a mysterious benefactor – both fantasies offered by the mass media – are firmly rejected as ideological lies, then a counter-fantasy appears: escaping humanity altogether and living “free as a bird” (or any other animal). Our authors, finding the success fantasy too unbelievable to bother with, instead poke holes in these counter- fantasies by showing animal lives are not all that balmy. This is quite evident in The Burrow in which the rodent hero is as much a harassed worry wart as the lowliest bureaucrat.
Rutkowski plays on this same fiddle, with gusto, describing, for instance, the narrator as a hapless dog, trapped in a kennel. However, he outdoes himself, and Kafka, in terms of disgusting the reader when he describes a bug narrator. Kafka’s readers must have been shocked when Gregor became a cockroach. How nasty. But what about the insect Rutkowski describes: “My secret fetish is coprophilia. I can’t help it – I’m a dung bettle. I’m happiest when I’m wallowing in a pile of dung.”
If Rutkowski were not a writer of major talent it would be presumptuous to compare him to Kafka. Rutkowski’s observations are acute and his satire resolutely off target in the most humorous way. Given his ability to work out the fears and fantasies of a social strata with great elan, he successfully follows the Czech’s lead.