Karen An-hwei Lee - In resplendent, incandescent prose, Karen An-hwei Lee fashions this short, strange trip out of a mind meld between the Czech fabulist of bureaucracies and a sun-hammered late-empire sprawl

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Karen An-hwei Lee, Sonata in K, Ellipsis Press, 2017. 


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Who is Kafka-san? Is he a digitally remastered hologram of the famous writer? Or a golem engineered from a finger-bone illegally excavated from a grave in Prague? Or just your garden-variety flesh-and-blood clone? No one is quite sure, least of all K, a Nisei woman hired to be Kafka-san’s interpreter and chauffeur through millennial Los Angeles. In resplendent, incandescent prose, Karen An-hwei Lee fashions this short, strange trip out of a mind meld between the Czech fabulist of bureaucracies and a sun-hammered late-empire sprawl.


What writer doesn’t pledge allegiance to Kafka? That’s why it’s astonishing when a writer comes along and actually makes Franz new, as does Karen An-hwei Lee, through her effervescent playfulness, richness of imagination, musicality, her endlessly inventive polyglot sensibility. Lee resides intimately in the space between languages, geographies, and temporalities as she pays homage to the master, as well as homage to the act of writing, of translation, of reading. The verbal and the sensual are fused under her supple pen, and you will marvel at her capacity to animate words, releasing them from habit and predictability into buoyancy.—Mary Caponegro 




Karen An-hwei Lee has produced, in elegant prose and lyric epistle, a sensorium whose richness renders appetite absurd, a roux of epicurean sensations reduced, like words on a menu, to signs and vocables.  Hers is a world once removed, both familiar and exotic, like Kafka’s own fabulist universe, in which America is Amerika and Kafka is K (or perhaps not). In Lee’s elegant satiric thrust through the belly of a subtle, dangerous consumerism of language and personality, facsimiles pass for originals, time is no longer absolute, celebrity holograms have become more desirable than the individuals they represent, and Kafka is “Kafkaesque” – that is, a commodity.  I heed Lee’s voice for the alarm it sounds in advance of a catastrophe as real and troubling as the San Andreas Fault and hail it for the beauty and, sometimes, comedy of its cool engagement with a “dioxide-tainted universe of nanoparticles in a roaring aquarium of steel-tentacled, inglorious ambition.”  Lee has written a Waste Land for our time, whose symbolic epicenter is Los Angeles; her novella is, at once, a present dystopia and an uncanny invocation of Kafka, serving time in a penal colony where consumption and its proliferating glossaries have gone mad.—Norman Lock


Like Dorothy, a publishing project, Eugene Lim’s Ellipsis Press is one of the few publishers that’s somehow able to hit a home run with every new book they release. How do they do it? Baudelaire instructs us to “always be a poet, even in prose,” and it seems that each writer selected for publication by Ellipsis has taken this dictum to heart. (Oh, so that’s how they do it! Easy!) Given her background in poetry, combined with Ellipsis’s description of her novel evoking the possibility of its central character being a “digitally remastered hologram” of Franz Kafka, there’s no reason to suspect that Karen An-hwei Lee will prove an exception to Ellipsis’s prefect track record.
From the publisher: “Who is Kafka-san? Is he a digitally remastered hologram of the famous writer? Or a golem engineered from a finger-bone illegally excavated from a grave in Prague? Or just your garden-variety flesh-and-blood clone? No one is quite sure, least of all K, a Nisei woman hired to be Kafka-san’s interpreter and chauffeur through millennial Los Angeles. In resplendent, incandescent prose, Karen An-hwei Lee fashions this short, strange trip out of a mind meld between the Czech fabulist of bureaucracies and a sun-hammered late-empire sprawl.” -


In Karen An-hwei Lee’s sun-soaked fantasia “Sonata in K”, Franz Kafka has been reanimated as a hologram by Hollywood producers who want him to advise on a film adaptation. Thus he finds himself visiting the boulevards and health food cafes of Los Angeles under the care of a Japanese-American interpreter and cicerone who calls him Kafka-san and herself goes by the Kafkaesque moniker K.  The film consultations go poorly, as Kafka-san is at a loss to understand why the script is about a rhinoceros. K suggests that the studio bigs may have confused him with Eugene Ionesco. Yet despite the manifold bizarreries of lotus-eating Los Angeles—“a metropolis of unheimlich sprawl into perpetual drought”—he finds the city restorative. Ms. Lee, a poet, encapsulates his reflections with exquisite delicacy and grace. Talk of used bookstores brings to mind “the toasted melancholy of aged paper.” A flock of birds pass overhead like “etudes of light.” Even the smog, coating the skyline “with a palimpsest of schmutz,” is worthy of eulogy.—Sam Sacks

Sonata in K is the debut novel by San Diego based poet Karen An-Hwei Lee. Naturally, much of Sonata in K feels exceedingly poetic at times – the prose majestic and ornate – but the real pleasure derived from reading Sonata in K comes from the inventive imagination behind this kaleidoscopic work.
Sonata in K is a finely crafted intellectual novel packed with lush and decadent language that brings the 20th century Czech writer back to life in tender detail. The prose possesses an elevated, intellectual quality to it that never wanders too far into abstraction and always dazzles. Lee also doesn’t shy away from a cornucopic use of language. Ever the polyglot, Lee incorporates German, Hebrew, Spanish, and Japanese (to recall just a few), that accrete to form a text that is rich in language, culture, and ideas.
However, the novel’s great successes are not only to be found within the ornate prose. Sonata in K is a living, breathing, ornament of self-consciousness, intertextuality, and playfulness that when combined with a simulacrum (or maybe not) of Kafka, becomes a wholly original literary enterprise. The playfulness of the novel is apparent from the preface, where the reader is told that “K is not K.” and that “Kafka-San is not Franz Kafka.” The reader only has to venture a few pages in before understanding that these declarations are nothing more than a playful ruse. Kafka-san is indeed Kafka, albeit reimagined, reincarnated, possibly holographic, or all of the above.
The novel follows a Nisei interpreter named “K,” who has been chosen to be a translator for the recently revived Kafka or “Kafka-san.” The story is set in modern day Los Angeles and takes place over the course of a few days, as the interpreter “K” escorts Kafka-san to and from a hotel to meetings with the very kafkaesque studio executives Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2. The meetings between Kafka-san and these men become more absurd as the frequency of the sessions increase. Kafka-san begins to find himself tangled in a web of bizarre script ideas involving a rhinoceros in love that the men allege the origins of to Kafka-san. In a subtle indictment of the entertainment industry at large, when talking about Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2 Kafka-san remarks:
Couldn’t tell whether they were ingenious artists, con-artists, or hooligans.
As a playful allusion to Kafka’s harsh authoritarian father Hermann, Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2 represent some of the biggest thematic ideas of Kafka’s works. They are a representation of the absurd and enigmatic bureaucracy of the entertainment world. These menschen also possess a vague and possibly illusory authority over Kafka-san, as it is hinted that they were the ones who brought Kafka-san back to life, and therefore have the power to send him “back into the ether.”
During his stay in Los Angeles, K and Kafka-san visit LA Live, Koreatown, and the Malibu coast – among other notable locales – making many gastronomical stops along the way. He marvels at the eradication of tuberculosis, the local hockey team, the apocalyptic levels of smog, underground aquifers, and pasteurized cream. The oft-jaundiced view of Los Angeles is satirized here to an extent, but by the end of the novel, despite the “shmutz of Angeleno air,” Kafka-san seems to be reinvigorated by the city:
Never felt it so keenly, not in the days of my youth, under the household tyranny of my father. Hermann. The original Mister Mann, yes. Yes. Never when I was flying kites as a university student, this shop-girl or that shop-girl… Now, I am weary with a maelstrom desire to live.
Sonata in K is also in constant conversation with the letters Kafka wrote during his life that were then published posthumously. There are allusions to these letters throughout the text, and most notably in the letters from Kafka-san to Max Brod that appear scattered throughout. Letter topics range from marveling over his 129th birthday, to the presence of thousands of bottles of mineral water at a cafe, to radishes not being radishes, and the knowledge that his sisters have since passed away. In particular, the astonishment over the thousands of bottles of mineral water alludes to a letter Kafka wrote while living out his final days in the Viennese sanatorium, where his tuberculosis gave him a “desire for good mineral water.” This sharp intertextuality is one of the many aspects of Sonata in K that makes it such an intellectually stimulating and pleasurable read for both the scholarly and casual Kafka enthusiast.
That said, one does not need to be wholly familiar with the late Czech writer to enjoy Lee’s remarkable debut novel. Sonata in K provides a banquet of elevated ideas and consciousness that should place it on many best of lists within the indie literary circuit. Through Sonata in K, Lee has given us a richly inventive text that will not only please fans of Kafka, but also the polyglot, the satirist, the poet, the stylist, and yes, the Angeleno foodie. -






Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo Press, 2012), Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008), a July Open selection, and In Medias Res (Sarabande Books, 2004), winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize selected by Heather McHugh and the Norma Farber First Book Award chosen by Cole Swensen. She is the author of a lyric novel, Sonata in K (Ellipsis Press, 2017).  Lee also wrote two chapbooks, God’s One Hundred Promises, winner of the Swan Scythe Press Prize awarded by Sandra McPherson in 2002, and What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press 2014). Lee received the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award (University of Nebraska) in 2014. A book of criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations (Cambria, 2013), was selected for publication by Victor H. Mair (University of Pennsylvania) for the Cambria World Sinophone Series.



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