29 THE AXE FOR THE FROZEN SEA
Listen to a Breaking Bad podcast and you will hear showrunner Vince Gilligan praise everyone and criticise no one. Gilligan is a man inspired by others and, no surprise, he created a TV show that invited admiration from an audience. Gilligan wanted to entertain, to share what impressed him about life. He also explored the darkness that existed within flawed human beings. This ambition was one of many that Vince Gilligan possessed yet it had enough importance to persuade him to use the term Kafkaesque for episode nine of season three of Breaking Bad. The characters in this episode are befuddled, baffled by those who have power over them. Hank and Marie are unable to understand why American medical treatment is so expensive. Jesse queries why Gus, the man who owns the meth plant where Jesse works, makes so much more money. Walt realises he owes his life to the paternalism of Gus but also recognises the limits of his understanding. Walt is content with his remuneration but unhappy about being kept powerless and ignorant. Walt is employed by a chess player that hides his moves. Skyler is not just the wife of Walt but conforms to the unpredictable female and oppressive diversion that Kafka feared. The fantasy Skyler creates enables her to pay the medical bills of Hank but, because they require elaborate lies and deceit, will make demands on her family.
Franz Kafka thought a book that merely entertained was nothing but wasted effort. It had to prod and stab the mind of a reader. At its best it would be the axe that cracks the frozen sea within us. In the magazine The Atlantic the critic Joseph Epstein claimed that Franz Kafka has been overrated. In the opinion of Epstein the great writers were, like Vince Gilligan, impressed with life. Kafka fails because he was crushed by his existence. Separating writers into those who are either impressed or crushed can be done but the claim of Epstein is nonsense. The examples of greatness that Epstein quotes are Joyce and Proust. But what puts those two individuals up there is an exceptional gift for language and a cerebral relish of detail. None of this means that they were impressed with life. James Joyce abandoned his homeland and became an expatriate. The assumption has been that Joyce fled from Catholic censoriousness and maybe he did. France, though, is another Catholic country. Intellectuals tempted to exist as outsiders often seek expatriation. James Joyce may have wanted that we all had more sex but no one should assume that he was impressed with human beings. Nor can we decide writers crushed by existence are inferior. Proust spent most of his life in his bedroom and inside a mother dominated retreat. He was haunted by the destructiveness of time and the fear of death.
There have been many translations of Kafka, and each translator claims that his or hers is an improvement on the previous. As Lee Marvin said before he shot Angie Dickinson at the end of The Killers, ‘Lady, I do not have the time.’ The following translation of the opening sentence of The Trial will suffice. It has after all found a place on t-shirts. ‘Someone must have made a false accusation against Josef K for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.’ Change the name Josef K to something like Johnny O and it could be the opening of an American hardboiled thriller. Breaking Bad may be the story of a school teacher and have its comic moments but it is also hardboiled. People get killed by toxic males, drug addicts waste their lives, fallen women sell their bodies and even the decent ladies tell lies.
The Trial was published in 1925. Kafka lived in Prague which back then was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The pulp fiction magazine Black Mask was launched in the USA in 1920. It is not likely that Kafka was influenced by the writers who submitted stories to the Black Mask editors. The appearance of Kafka and hardboiled crime writers was, though, close enough in time to be called simultaneous. In his essay The Simple Art of Murder crime writer Raymond Chandler compared his mysteries to those of Agatha Christie. Chandler said that fellow hardboiled author Dashiell Hammett had taken the dead body out of the Venetian vase and put it in the alley. Chandler could have said that he and Hammett, unlike Christie, acknowledged the claustrophobic and corrupt modern world that existed in the city, the urban bureaucracy most of us experience.
Both in The Castle and The Trial the hero K struggles against bureaucratic officials reluctant to explain procedures. Often the officials do not even understand what they are explaining. Hammett and Chandler deplored the effects of American capitalism. European bureaucracy had to endure criticism from Kafka. But amongst these three writers only Hammett was a political activist. All seven novels of Chandler feature Philip Marlowe as a private detective ready to walk mean urban streets. Marlowe is an alienated misanthrope who has not just contempt for the modern world but the human race. In The Long Goodbye he concedes that the unendurable mess that is supposed to be society may be ‘the best that we can have’. Josef K is not just the accused. He is also the accuser that protests and seeks an explanation. The private detective of hardboiled thrillers is also the accused that accuses. Accusation and the use of heroism as a measure of worth create guilt in the modern male. Women offer sexual and emotional relief but are deceitful and unpredictable. They are also judgemental and add to the inexplicable inadequacy that Kafka describes and the loathing that Philip Marlowe has for himself and others. Josef K and Marlowe are hostile to women, especially those they find attractive.
In the books of Kafka and Chandler the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy and American capitalism may shrink human beings but they are not the prime concerns of the writers. Instead flawed society emphasises the loneliness and alienation of the individual. A sunny day on a beach would not have the same impact. In describing the modern world as brutal the hardboiled thriller and Kafka reveal the inexplicable caprice that decides the destiny of human beings. Talent, the ability to work hard and fortune all exist but they are a consequence of random metaphysical cruelty. For Chandler and Kafka the powerful and rich are awful. They are the same as everyone else but leave additional damage because they have more power. They behave badly because they can. Because they are writers, Chandler and Kafka are defiant. Despite the gloomy themes both writers are more than willing to laugh at absurdity. Their novels are intended to both disturb and amuse. Chandler had a fondness for cynical wisecracks. Kafka presented oppressive cruelty as nuanced slapstick.
Something similar happens in the suburban world of Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan has a strong sense of the comic but the tale is a tragedy. Virtue is neither recognised nor rewarded, and the only prizes are financial. Walt is gifted but has to somehow cope in a lopsided world. He has intelligence and energy beyond brother-in-law Hank but earns less money. The writers resist offering overt criticism of modern America but throughout stress the influence of consumer capitalism. The rebellion of Walt begins in the car wash where he works and in a shop when his son is buying trousers. Consumption, appetite and taste not only define the characters of Breaking Bad but reveal the desperation that exists in their lives. The swimming pools in their homes reinforce the claustrophobia that exists in suburbia. The most frustrated character of all, Marie, assumes that if she adds theft to shopping she will mitigate her spiritual emptiness. When Walt is told he has cancer and will soon die he realises that his life, which will soon end, has been wasted. Or as Kafka wrote, ‘He is terribly afraid of dying because he hasn’t yet lived.’ Rather than read Joyce and Proust or satisfy his intellectual curiosity Walt decides that he needs to make more money. He may have a superior education but his response, like that of Marie, is shaped by consumerism.
If using the term Kafkaesque as a title for an episode of Breaking Bad feels pretentious, the idea can be forgiven. Gilligan did, though, pick the wrong episode for the title. Episode eight in season four has a scene that occurs in the waiting room of a hospital. Walt has a conversation with another patient waiting for his cancer test. The other patient is told that every three months Walt waits in this room expecting to be told he will soon die. Walt insists, though, that in between these examinations he has taken control of his life. Whatever happens, says Walt, he is in charge. He informs the other patient in the waiting room that we all live under a death sentence. At the end of these defiant remarks the camera cuts to Walt beginning his shift in the meth plant. We watch Walt putting on absurd yellow overalls in order that he can begin his daily grind. The man who labours under the illusion he is in control is subservient to a bureaucracy or system. This one has been created by an immoral gangster whose only ambition is to make money. We observe what happens to Walt through the CCTV cameras that both monitor and reduces what is left of his existence. That is Kafkaesque.
Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here. The next book from Howard Jackson, No Tall Heels To Tango, will be available soon from Red Rattle Books.