A Metamorphosis of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis
There are countless idioms and critical studies that emphasize the higher level of learning that takes place when one performs or attempts an action as opposed to the learning that takes place when one has the action done for them. A flexible narrative, my chosen terminology for what has previously been called a choose-your-own-adventure story, allows for greater personal engagement from the reader because they are inserted into the role of the protagonist. Rather than read about a character in a story, one is the character in the story. The reader is thrust into the circumstances and forced to make decisions that will affect the trajectory of the narrative in meaningful ways. For example, if The Old Man and the Sea were a flexible narrative, rather than read about an aged man’s struggle against a mighty fish, the reader themselves would struggle against the mighty fish. A reader would be forced to decide how long to let the fish drag them out to sea, how far to push their body, how to ration their resources, and how to react to moments of great success or great misfortune. Another advantage of flexible narratives is the potential for new reading experiences each time one picks up the book. It allows for past experience to inform present decision making. If previously, one frivolously wasted their rations and expired on their way out to sea, the next time through the narrative they might distribute their food and water more carefully in order to explore more intricate narratives. Flexible narratives allow for trial and error learning experiences devoid of the devastation associated with major errors in reality.
Flexible narratives are a young genre which means there is plenty of room for creative adaptation and productive advancement. The first wave of flexible narratives emerged just thirty five years ago and were intended to inspire children to find reading more enjoyable through the introduction of reader interactivity (Rossen). However, flexible narratives as a genre have failed to attract a substantial body of literary criticism in comparison to other novels in different genres (Rossen). For example, just 60 years after The Metamorphosis was published, “there were already ten thousand works on Franz Kafka in print” (Straus, 651). When searching ProQuest for literary criticism in scholarly journals written on flexible narratives, the massive online database returned just nine results. One of the results seemed to actually apply literary criticism to a flexible narrative, while the other eight merely made glancing references to the genre in general (ProQuest). An armful of scholarly articles does not necessitate that a book has literary merit, but it is suspect that the entire genre of flexible narratives is so alarmingly barren of scholarly attention. There may be something critically lacking within the novels perpetuating the genre or the genre may still be in its prototype stage. Clearly, the flexible narrative genre is in dire need of something to invigorate its relevance or it may never even reach its sophomoric stage. I believe what flexible narratives need are a stronger, more approachable foundation and a more enticing medium through which to convey their interactive nature.
Fortunately, inventions are not always shackled to their original forms. Many inventions undergo a series of progressive iterations. For example, who among us still uses or even possesses a first generation iPhone? The achilles heel of the proliferation of flexible narratives is that they attempt to construct so much freedom for readers in a somewhat restrictive medium and they do so with little to no contextual approachability. They attempt to tell new stories through a new storytelling method which proves challenging for both the author to meaningfully create and the reader to meaningfully engage with. Furthermore, in novels where primary characters experience a plethora of different narrative paths, it is difficult for a critic to even attempt to critique the story. There are plenty of logical reasons why flexible narratives in their current form repel the kind of widespread scholarly criticism that can lead to popularity and merit. First and foremost, a critic approaching a multi-directional narrative which will likely have to explore all possible narrative paths. Some of these paths may branch off into somewhat obscene or extreme endings that appear too divergent to connect to some of the more traditional endings. Conglomerating a heap of narrative paths and ends to formulate a central meaning to a flexible narrative is nearly impossible. There is also the inevitability of favoring certain narrative paths over others. So long as criticism stays true to its current form, which it likely will, these struggles will always be at the forefront of interpreting flexible narratives. The macro issue with flexible narratives is that the stories and the interactive process they present are both branching and unfamiliar, but there is a solution that resolves one of these major issues.
If one is open to applying a flexible narrative framework to an already existing linear narrative, one can make this genre more approachable for casual readers and critics. The number of potential narrative paths that can be applied to an existing linear narrative are seemingly endless. An established, popular, and multivalent Kafka work, like Metamorphosis, which has already inspired criticism from a diverse field of scholars, “students of religion, philosophy, psychoanalysis, political and social criticism, Marxism, and literature,” would be the perfect foundation from which to build a flexible narrative because Metamorphosis already defies definite interpretation (Straus). The genre of flexible narratives needs a foundational linear text from which to begin more productively and approachably and Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a strong candidate because of its hermeneutic elusiveness.
There is a reservoir of untapped educational and entertainment potential contained in the flexibility of linear narratives. I should qualify that I am not arguing for the abolition of reading traditional linear narratives. In fact, I think prior to experiencing the flexible version of a story one should most definitely read and study the original linear story. Some of the most popular linear narratives in the world already had so much to teach us. They involve protagonists surmounting extraordinary odds or making unpopular but morally upstanding decisions. Flexible narratives could allow readers to come to experience these powerful moments themselves and learn a great deal about authors, stories, ourselves, others, and the world.
Traditional critics might argue that allowing for reader interactivity and flexibility within a linear text jeopardizes the integrity of the original text. They might argue that changing even one word irreversibly changes the text. I would direct these critics to Plutarch’s ancient Greek philosophy example that examines the incredibly nuanced complications of physical identity issues. Certainly, a quiet word or two may be changed from version to version of a story without anyone even noticing. It is when a change comes to our attention that one might worry. I agree that there are certain moments in the original text that, without, the story would simply not be the same if they were altered. One might miss the meaning of the story if the story were to allow for multiple narrative paths.
Within a flexible narration of a linear text, certain moments, actions, and circumstances should be kept intact if the text is to keep its integrity. I have chosen Kafka’s Metamorphosis as my text to flex into a flexible narrative because it has an easily identifiable catalyst at the beginning of the story that propels the rest of the narrative. The hermeneutic elusivity of Metamorphosis also helps quiet critics’ arguments about changing the meaning of the story. One might argue that Kafka is an anomaly and that his stories are the only stories in the world that defy definite interpretation in this way, but I would counter that any story is already quite flexible in meaning and thus should be open to narrative flexibility as well. No two people are in such identical states of mind and manner and matter such that they each individually read a linear narrative and experience it in exactly the same way. There is already so much room for imagination and personal preferences to influence the meaning of a linear narrative that the argument against flexible narration from the viewpoint of integrity or meaning proves to be quite weak. In the age of Kindles, iPads, other electronic readers, audio books, and even different versions of books released year to year, we are already consuming different stories in different mediums and different wording. Language to language, books can read vastly differently. Why not allow a reader’s imagination and personal preferences to more directly affect the narrative?
Flexible narratives are valuable because they allow for readers to explore their own tangential yet tethered interpretations of their reading experience even further. If this genre is to be saved, I believe flexible narratives should be applied to already existing linear texts. As for the proper medium through which to read these stories, flexible narratives have much to gain from another burgeoning narrative field: dream control.
Dreams have been defined as, “a narrative experience that occurs during sleep” (Lite). As one who suffers from night terrors, I vividly remember what it is like to be trapped inside a dream I desperately wanted to escape. The dreams were so believable that the pain, the horror, and the physicality appeared real. I think we have all experienced a dream we have bought into, a dream we were shocked to realize was nothing more than a dream when we awoke. Dreams can enrapture us, that much is certain, and this is where flexible narratives and Kafka re-enter the picture.
Dream control technology is even younger than the genre of flexible narratives. As of yet, prototype headbands, pills, and mindfulness exercises are being developed to introduce autonomy into our dreams. Most advancements in this field so far involve improving a person’s ability to recognize that they are dreaming while they are dreaming in order to seize control of the dream (Lite). If successful, one could be able to shape and mold the circumstances of their dream. We spend roughly one third of our lives sleeping and will likely continue to do so for a very long time. What if we could utilize this sizeable chunk of time in dream space for the purpose of education, adventure, or enlightenment? It might be possible to program flexible literary narratives into the experiential space of dreams. This would make the novel come alive for us in magnificent and unimaginable ways. Intertwining flexible narratives and dream control technology might just save the genre and explode our traditional understanding of narratives.
I was inspired to pursue this project when I reread the first sentence of Metamorphosis one morning: “As Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin” (Kafka, 7). I always wondered how I would react to this bizarre situation and what I would do if I awoke in the body of a “monstrous vermin” (Kafka, 7). But I knew that I could not accurately imaginatively conceive of my reactions to such a bizarre morning experience without actually being, or believing myself to be, in that situation. But if flexible dream narration were to become a reality, I could. I could dream myself through non-life threatening scenarios in which I were temporarily transformed just as Gregor Samsa was transformed in Metamorphosis. I could discover how I would react to this narrative experience.
Due to technological limitations, the inner workings of implementing a flexible narrative into a dream can only be speculative at this time. Cornerstones of a linear text, key moments without which the original story would be lost, should be central to their application. I have chosen Metamorphosis because it seems to be a text that both already defies definite interpretation and possesses a clear catalyst for the story at the beginning. A single text with a single cornerstone, like Metamorphosis, might still possess an endless amount of possible narrative paths in dream space. With texts that have multiple cornerstones, one could think of these key moments as checkpoints one would eventually encounter as they invigorate the narrative with their own reactions and interpretations in their dream. The possibilities of flexible dream narratives are infinite. Perspective changes, protagonist actions and reactions, and in some cases even settings may be differentiated in the individual’s flexible narrative in such a way that unique insight, interpretation, and most importantly, participation are experienced in a lively, believable, and intimate way.
One of the more difficult challenges I faced when crafting my flexible narrative version of Metamorphosis was establishing the cornerstone. It is hard to conceive of a flexible version of the narrative where one does not wake up on a workday transformed into a “monstrous vermin” (Kafka). I reimagined Metamorphosis from what I thought might be my own personal reactions to certain situations inspired by what I considered the cornerstone of Kafka’s narrative. My personal flexing of the Metamorphosis narrative in inklewriter should in no way be considered an exhaustive expression of the seemingly endless potential paths one could take when flexing this linear narrative, especially if flexible narration reaches dream space. It could very well be that I, in my own attempt at flexing the narrative, have betrayed the integrity of Metamorphosis in my imaginative departures from the traditional storyline by establishing only one cornerstone. However, what I hope to have conveyed in my project is the value of flexible narratives and the potential dream space holds for exploring flexible narratives in a more alive and realistic way than ever experienced. Dream control technology can save the genre of flexible narratives. In his book Illuminations, Walter Benjamin says that Kafka, “divests the human gesture of its traditional supports and thus has a subject for reflection without end” (Benjamin, 122). Flexing Kafka’s narrative in dreamspace could allow each one of us to share in his infinitely interpretable narrative artistry and to experience that illuminating, endless reflection in a way that makes it more real and more infinite.
When I first conceived of my idea for this project, I had a relatively narrow vision of what this project could be. I thought the flexible narrative aspect would be the bulwark of the interactivity. My project seemed very simple until I experienced one of my bi-annual night terrors.
It was a week or so before the prototype was due and I woke up suddenly when my arm flailed and hit my night stand. I quickly turned on the lights and did some breathing exercises to assure myself that I was now awake and that what I had experienced was nothing more than another one of my sleep disruptions. Unfortunately I have never been able to fall back asleep after a night terror, so I began my day. When I opened my laptop, the rough draft of my prototype was already loaded on the screen. There was also something theoretically missing that could take the project beyond merely a flexible narration of a linear text. I knew that at the time. But what I didn’t know then was that my recent dream episode and my developing project were going to coalesce. That morning, around 3:30am or so, I came up with my idea of how to save flexible narration by implanting the stories in dream space.
Thus I awoke one morning from unsettling dreams inspired to continue work on my flexible version of a story that begins with a protagonist waking up one morning from unsettling dreams. I cursed my night terrors under my breath and did some research. There are few feelings as rewarding and enticing as a conceptual breakthrough, especially when mentally occupying a somnambulatory state. The whole project seemed to unfold itself in front of me and it all hinged on a hope I had for myself: that one day I would be free from my night terrors.
After a few hours, I had many of the theoretical structures, like the cornerstones and second person narration for the prototype, in place. Second person narration always seems to involve a reader more in my opinion. After several more hours, I had one of my own threshed out flexible Metamorphosis narratives typed out in a word document. I used a coding system in order to keep track of the different threads. It was a mess. That narrative path ended with me, in “monstrous vermin” form, being crushed in a garbage truck compactor (Kafka). Inspiration struck early that morning and by lunch I had totally reimagined the complexity and implementation of my prototype. Over the next week or so I worked diligently on refining and expanding the project by creating more and more narrative paths using the coding system in a word document. Then, it was time to present my prototype.
The coding system I had established would have been difficult to continue using as my story expanded to its final form, ultimately allowing for fifteen unique conclusions. A recommendation was made to experiment with a digital multi-directional online interface, inklewriter, to continue expanding and organizing my flexible narrative and it certainly helped me overcome the organizational obstacle.
I went back and forth on my decision to present the flexible narrative in the second person perspective for some time. I really wanted this project to be interpreted and read as if one were actually living out the events as they were occurring. I wanted readers to feel like they were making the decisions themselves. I debated whether first person would be better because it could perhaps seem a little bit more like a first person shooter video game, but I ultimately decided on second person for the following reasons. First, I recognized that what I was presenting was merely my own example of a flexible narrative in digital form and that the users of the currently inaccessible dream technology would be coming up with their own paths and narratives themselves on the fly in dream space. The much less technologically advanced version of my aspirational product in inklewriter then, by using the pronoun “you” rather than “I”, actually felt more autonomous as one read through it. I wanted readers to read “you” off the computer screen and instinctively translate the “you” they read to “I” in their head. It was only after testing out some of my narrative threads on friends using the different pronouns that I realized second person was the proper perspective. Unfortunately, while some dream technology is still in the discovery process, many of the technological aspects of my dream project could never come to fruition. To overcome the challenge of making the reader feel like they were inhabiting a real dream-like story space, I incorporated sensory details, interior considerations, and descriptive language that I thought of myself as I ran through my flexible Metamorphosis gauntlet. I hope that one might become attached to this “you” that is running through their head while making the narrative decisions and implant themselves into the story.
As a creative writer, establishing the cornerstone was difficult for me. I was not sure that I was allowing enough of the narrative to have its say in my flexible version, but I ultimately decided that Kafka’s Metamorphosis truly did launch from the transformation we witness in the first sentence and a few other external character pressures apparent in the first few pages. I also made sure to include physical details from Metamorphosis about the body one wakes up in like the “little legs” but stuck with Kafka’s vagueness. Readers do not know exactly what kind of “monstrous vermin” they are, only that they are one and that they are horrifying. If I were to continue this project further, I would use the death of the reader as a “monstrous vermin” as a cornerstone and from there begin a new, more reflective, flexible narrative. The question of how one might react if they experienced life in human form, then vermin form, died, and was reincarnated in their original body as if nothing ever happened always interested me.
Anticipating a range of reader personal histories, I referred to all members of the family as either, “your family,” or in interactions with a particular member, “a loved one”. I refrained from labeling the characters mother or father in an attempt to improve universal accessibility. This was a major discovery I made throughout the production of this project. That every word must be meticulously chosen when constructing a flexible narrative for consumption entirely reshaped my approach post-prototype stage. At each conclusion of a narrative path, except for only one in which you fall incorrectly from a window and “splat”, I tried to reflect on one or more of the topics we discussed throughout the class. The most frequent concluding considerations were on the body and the different ways one can feel alien from others and even themselves when they are thrust into an unfamiliar body or ostracized from their loved ones because of their physical nature. We allow other people’s interpretations of our individual selves to impress so deeply upon how we value our own selves. That was another discovery I made as I came to somewhat dark conclusions in the creative portion of my project.
A final realization I had while completing and contemplating the interactive narrative in inklewriter was on the difficult hypocrisy and pervasiveness of value judgements made on appearance. Most people do not wish to be judged solely upon their physical nature, yet it is so easy to slip into that frame of mind when we regard others. We should strive to let the physical judgements others make about us glance off of us as if we were wearing a hardened shell, rather than let these shallow judgements penetrate us so deeply that they impact our actions and affect our understanding of our own self worth.
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