The identity metamorphosis – Washington Examiner

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” This opening line of Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis is among the most famous first sentences in all of literature. Kafka’s story examines the aftermath of a young man’s unexpected, unexplained transformation into a gigantic insect. The novella is compelling as a stand-alone story about a horrific change in the life of a traveling salesman and what this grotesque transformation portends for him and his family, whom he supports financially. But Kafka’s classic story is even better appreciated when viewed as part of the rich and long-standing literary genre of the metamorphosis tale.
The first-century Roman writer Ovid inaugurated this tradition with his narrative poem Metamorphoses, which retells transformation stories from Greek and Roman mythology in Latin verse. Dante, in his own epic poem, the Divine Comedy, claimed to have surpassed Ovid by creating a transformation story in Inferno wherein he fuses two creatures into one, unlike Ovid, who merely transformed one creature into a different creature. Kafka didn’t need to boast that he had bettered the medieval Italian poet, but he most assuredly did. And since Kafka’s metamorphosis story, no one has yet to best him, despite the best efforts of C.S. Lewis, Philip Roth, Roald Dahl, Haruki Murakami, and a teeming swarm of other writers.
If Mohsin Hamid’s The Last White Man is any indication, there is no reason to expect that writers will give up on trying to top Kafka anytime soon. Hamid’s new novel begins with a sentence that at once indicates that the 51-year-old British Pakistani novelist is the latest writer to try to take after Kafka while also upping the ante of the metamorphosis tale for the trigger-warning era: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.”
Anders worries that if this change persists, it will make him “forever into prey being pursued.” He loathes this inexplicable new self of his, wanting to “kill the colored man who confronted him in his home, to extinguish the life animating this other’s body, to leave nothing standing but himself, as he was before.” He goes back to bed, hoping that this metamorphosis hadn’t really happened. When he finally comes to terms with the fact that he is not dreaming and that he now really is no longer white, he can’t stop continually checking himself in the mirror or with the camera on his phone.
Jerry Seinfeld has a joke about why it is that we feel this compulsion to look at ourselves every time we pass by a mirror or are walking alongside a pane of reflective glass. Seinfeld wonders: What will I learn about myself that I didn’t know before? Will I discover that I am actually a short Korean woman? In Anders’s case, this is no laughing matter; he keeps looking at himself because he has, in fact, discovered that he has been transformed into a person of color and does not know what to make of this revelation. He struggles to recognize himself in his reflection, as does his phone. When he takes pictures of himself and saves them into his phone’s photo files, his phone’s algorithms do not identify the pictures as images of him. What more evidence does he need that he really has become a different person when even his iPhone can no longer recognize him? This is not only The Metamorphosis for the identity politics era but Kafka for the age of Siri.
Anders calls in sick to his job at a gym, first for a day, then for a week. He doesn’t want to go out and be seen by anyone in his new state, but he knows he must eventually go out to get groceries — “there was only so much protein powder a man could reasonably be expected to consume.” And because this is 2022, he also needs to pick up some marijuana.
The name “Anders” in German means “different,” which is exactly what Anders has become overnight: a stranger, an other. “People who knew him no longer knew him.” And others who didn’t now think that they do — “dark” people, which is very disturbing to him. “The moment when one dark man would look at him” in a manner of mutual recognition alarms him. Anders begins to feel “vaguely menaced” when he walks around town. So he dons a hoodie in the hope of obscuring most of his face and keeps his brown hands hidden in his pockets. He is not sure where the sense of threat is coming from, but “it was there, it was strong.” Unlike Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Hamid’s Anders has not been transformed into an ugly insect; all that has happened is that the tone of his skin has changed. Is that really so bad? People wake up with all kinds of awful life-altering conditions that they didn’t have the day before — knee pain, migraines, arthritis, acid reflux. Unlike Anders’s new condition, some of these other conditions that transform people’s lives overnight can be chronic, incurable, and can shatter people’s quality of life. Isn’t Anders being a little melodramatic about his new condition when he contemplates turning his rifle on himself all because his skin color is now a little darker than it used to be?
Anders has other reasons to not be overly despondent; unlike the truly cursed Gregor, Anders has a girlfriend, Oona, a yoga instructor whose breakfasts of oats, berries, and nut butter is “so healthy it could kill a person.” When she comes over to check on him, she realizes that more than just his color has changed; there’s a different expression in his eyes, “though maybe that was fear.” They share a joint, have sex, and somewhere we can hear poor Gregor shouting, “Dude, what are you complaining about? You think you have it bad? Try getting laid when you’ve been transformed into an enormous insect, then come back and talk to me!”
The novel takes a turn from wokeist neo-Kafkaesque parable to apocalyptic science fiction when Anders learns that he is not the only person who has been changed. There are reports of others transforming into brown people too. And the transformations are accelerating by the day. If the rate of these metamorphoses continues, soon enough, there may be no more white people left anywhere in this novel’s world. This is Kafka’s Metamorphosis meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers crossed with Children of Men and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.
The Last White Man has an obvious fablelike quality to it — the one-name characters with no last names, the unidentified city they live in, the clearly intentional manner in which it is patterned after Kafka’s transformation tale. But unlike Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which is still so gripping now even after 100-plus years, Hamid tries to lend The Last White Man a propulsive feel through never-ending sentences to nowhere rather than through the energy of the story. I would quote one for you, but it would literally take up an entire page. As if such sentences were not sufficiently exasperating, Hamid also employs an odd style of repeating words in sentences: “Anders felt the magnitude of his relief, a relief that washed over him and drenched him with defeat”; “His son, his son was different”; “Oona had not meant to keep this face on, this face she had made.” The literary device of anaphora (essentially a form of stylized repetition) can lend beauty to prose when used judiciously and artistically. Here, it is wearisome and frequently head-scratching.
There is a good story here in this novel, one about an aging father gradually growing to understand his different son and about a racist mother and her nonracist-yet-still-loving daughter. Ultimately, there’s a story about how much of a person changes if his skin color changes. Will the omelettes he makes taste any different? Will the sex he has feel any different? Will his friends and family treat him any differently? What makes someone a so-called person of color? Is it really just about skin color? Or must there be a broader, deeper cultural aspect that dictates one’s identity? Alas, this story is buried under the detritus of bizarre and needlessly byzantine stylistic choices. Gregor Samsa may have been more tortured than Hamid’s Anders, but he still retains the laurel as the featured character in the world’s greatest, and still unsurpassed, metamorphosis story.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a Washington Examiner contributing writer and the author of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema and the novel A Single Life


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