“The Kafka Studies Department”
Heliotrope Books, $18.50
While super-short-form snippets of media pervade contemporary culture, the art of literary flash fiction occupies a more modest realm. Still, from high-quality online venues such as SmokeLong Quarterly to The New Yorker magazine's summer flash fiction series, short, condensed narratives are alive and well and still breaking new ground.
The 30 stories in Francis Levy's "The Kafka Studies Department" add a lightly absurdist take on human psychology to the landscape of literary brevity.
A sprinter who seems to be intent on suicide by obsessive self-improvement crops up in a suburban neighborhood, provoking the residents' censure; a writer "so devoid of ideas he couldn't get up in the morning" squanders his one swing at greatness; a man whose sole purpose is "the awakening of his torpid wife" pays the price for his tunnel vision.
Throughout the collection, Mr. Levy holds steady with a measured tone of observation infused with subtle, but persistent, almost bemused absurdism. He writes here with deadpan exaggeration, a more earnest cousin to satire.
Hovering above the action as it unfolds, Mr. Levy's narrator activates a reoccurring body of concerns including preoccupation with success and failure, jealousy, competition, and social status. A sense of frustration with the tedium of existence laces through the collection.
Although apparently set in present-day America, the stories have little truck with specific details that anchor time and place. Few details of setting or character together with an absence of socio-political elements contribute to a sense of removal from the intricacies of a larger context in the material world. This can be read, perhaps, as a gesture toward universality. These narratives occupy a space akin to a knowing, slightly ironical incident report. The author offers the bones of the story. The reader is led to draw conclusions about human psychology (especially the limitations of the self and certain ironies of human interaction), occasionally heartwarming, often dour, sometimes a bit obvious.
As a whole, the major theme of the collection is that of reversal, with the individual stories acting as a kind of catalog: reversal of fortune, reversal of feeling, reversal of power, reversal of roles. In Mr. Levy's world, reversals of all kinds are everywhere, as landmine and as saving grace.
A handful of the stories hold in store unexpected conclusions born of skillfully written, striking reversal. This is a delicate business. Pacing is everything, and the timing of the final swoop must end with a sound landing.
Mr. Levy accomplishes this feat several times as the collection progresses, creating a sense of interest in the terrain ahead. "Happily Ever After" chronicles the changing fortunes of a writer, with a surprising conclusion. "Trust" outlines the runaway inner machinations of a jealous spouse, with a twist. In "The Healer," a former serial seductress seeks forgiveness from the people in the circle she disrupted — watch out for what develops.
The second half of the book is devoted to 16 stories recounting episodes in the life of a character called Spector. These stories take the reader through scenes of broken friendship, failed marriage, and fulfillment turned sour. In several stories, Spector dwells in the lure of self-annihilation until finally, in death, he turns up in the most accomplished story in the volume, "The Afterlife," wherein he discovers that, actually, life goes on, only forever.
Here, Mr. Levy's absurdism finds a real home. He warms to his topic, hones his tone, and gets on top of his game. Although adjacent to some of the material in his 2018 novel "Tombstone: Not a Western" (a death industry satire), there is a freshness here. His voice and theme seem to converge, and strike it just so.
"Spector's expectations were shattered from the first day of his afterlife."
Death, the ultimate reversal.
Evan Harris is the author of "The Quit." She lives in East Hampton.
Francis Levy's previous books include "Seven Days in Rio," a comic novel. He lives part time in Wainscott and blogs at ScreamingPope.com. "The Kafka Studies Department" has illustrations by Hallie Cohen, an art professor at Marymount Manhattan College.