Uncanny Interviews: A Conversation with Kafka via Michael Cisco

The First in a New Series Brings the Dead Back for Questioning

The following interview occurred in Michael Cisco’s New York apartment, which consists of the basement of a house dating back to the 1700s, and the sub-basement he has dug below that level. Greeting me at the door in a red fez, a multi-colored pancho, cargo shorts, and sandals with white socks, Cisco brought me through the study, library, kitchen, surgery, taxidermy workshop, and lunarium, to a cramped and peculiar space that he called “The Kafka Room.” The walls and ceiling had been covered with debris either glued or nailed in place: bits of rubble, some wire, strips of cloth, a husk of a teddy bear, and even, in one place, the top half of a small suitcase. The floor consisted of the oldest sort of cobblestone. In the center stood a rickety poker table and two frayed lawn chairs. On the table sat a piece of rock. 

Dee’s Principles of Uncanny Transplanted Topography,” Cisco told me. “You transport as much material from your subject’s place and time as possible. “Even that?” I asked, pointing to the suitcase fragment. “Especially that,” Cisco said. “That’s part of the last suitcase Kafka ever owned. And that” — he pointed to a corner of the room – “is the mummified remains of a barking dog at which he once threw a pebble.” The cobblestones, Cisco explained, had been unearthed at great expense from Kafka’s favorite walk through Prague. The rock on the table came from the place where Kafka had once lived in the wall of the city. The lawn chairs had belonged to Kafka’s friend Max Brod, stolen from a Black Sea resort. And so on and so forth.

We sat and faced each other across the table in our lawn chairs, Cisco’s left hand upon the rock. I would like to say that the room grew cold, that there was a blinding light, that an apparition appeared…but in fact nothing much changed. All that happened is this: Cisco’s face went blank and then a thoughtful, meditative expression quite impossible for Cisco spread across his slack features. I realized that the eyes now looking out toward me were no longer Cisco’s eyes, but quite clearly the eyes of Franz Kafka. I knew this to my marrow and without question. Since I felt no fear or sense of menace, I proceeded with the interview. Cisco, in consultation with Kafka, answered in his own voice, in English (Cisco was simultaneously translating). At the end, Cisco’s eyes returned to their usual lifeless morphine-dulled state. Kafka had clearly left the room. – Jeff VanderMeer

Weirdfictionreview.com: Beyond surprise at your posthumous popularity, Mr. Kafka, what emotions or thoughts do you have about this turn of events?

Cisco (Channeling Kafka): He feels anger at being taken over, turned into an adjective and a speciality. Chagrin at being exposed to so much scrutiny, at being put on t‑shirts. Guilt, because of the prying attention that his fame has drawn onto those nearest to him. He feels intimidated and oppressed by all the critical studies. Horrified. It’s as if he were being punished.

Weirdfictionreview.com: Do you wish you had better hid your pornography?

Cisco: He wishes no one had gone poking around looking for it. This kind of question is of more concern to critics, whom he would rather were not concerned with him at all.

Weirdfictionreview.com: Are there any of your existing stories that you wish had never been published?

Cisco: He would rather most of them had not been published, or that, if they had, they had remained largely unknown. He wonders about the responsibility he may or may not have toward so many readers. Actually, he can’t really account for his desire to publish any of his work anymore.

Weirdfictionreview.com: What are some of the more amusing misinterpretations of your stories, perhaps in particular “The Metamorphosis”?

Cisco: It isn’t quite a matter of misinterpreting; there’s a basic mistake that’s being made, and it doesn’t amuse him so much as it persuades him he failed, even though there was no way he could have avoided failure. Interpreting the story is already a mistake; that it was written in the first place was very likely a mistake, although not an entirely regrettable one. Everything in the story is meant to be entirely straightforward and clear, without any special symbolism.

It’s a very simple story, like something in the newspaper. Of course, it can be associated with themes on a grand scale, such as the family, the state, and so on, but only in the way that a newspaper story could be.

Weirdfictionreview.com: Have you read Quirk Books’ mash-up novel entitled “Kittymorphosis”?

Cisco: No answer. I don’t think the question is intelligible to him.

Weirdfictionreview.com: How much of “In the Penal Colony” is based on personal experience?

Cisco: “All of it!” he says,

Weirdfictionreview.com: Do you think people today are laughing in the right places?

Cisco: “It’s all the right place, that’s fine,” he says.

Weirdfictionreview.com: You’ve been featured as a character in several stories and novels. Are any of these portrayals accurate, and does it matter?

Cisco: No it doesn’t matter, or not exactly. The thinking, the mental existence, is what seemed important at the time, but that existence naturally proceeded from the organic, living thing. Nevertheless, the thinking could have been done by a chair, or a wall, or a street. To dwell so much on the man seems like a mistake; it’s as if someone were to tell you that a person you see every day, a thoroughly unremarkable person, were an infamous murderer or a deposed king. You would stare at him surreptitiously, trying in vain to associate him with these enormities.

Weirdfictionreview.com: What make you angriest looking back at the living from the afterlife?

Cisco: He doesn’t like the exposure of his private life, although he feels he brought it on himself by publishing at all.

Weirdfictionreview.com: Are you afraid of anything where you are?

Kafka: “No more so, I think less. Perhaps much less.”

Weirdfictionreview.com: Do you maintain much contact with your old friends now?

Cisco: I get nothing. I imagine that he does, but he’s not saying.

Weirdfictionreview.com: You destroyed some of your stories while you were alive. Can you give us brief summaries of a couple of these stories?

Cisco: “They weren’t worth bothering with.” There was one about a woodworker he could never manage to drive in the right direction. He wrote about an Eskimo hunting seals once, tracking them first on the ice, then in the water, but he couldn’t finish it. There was another one about a man who invented a new kind of light.

Weirdfictionreview.com: Have you read any fiction since your death? If so, is there anything in particular you’d recommend?

Cisco: He likes Bruno Schulz, Borges, Cortazar’s stories, and much of Beckett. He thinks “The Lottery” is good. He likes Pale Fire. Rene Leys he enjoyed. Solaris. Roland Topor’s The Tenant. Akutagawa’s stories, like “Rashomon” and “Spinning Gears.” I’m sure I’m missing much of it.

Weirdfictionreview.com: What are you working on these days?

Cisco: Nothing finished.


Don’t know who Kafka is? Google it.

Next in the Uncanny Interviews series: Sonya Taaffe interviews Lucan.

Michael Cisco (1970 — ) is an American writer best known for his first novel, The Divinity Student, which was published by Ann VanderMeer’s Buzzcity Press and won the International Horror Guild Award in 1999. Since then, Cisco has published The San Veneficio Canon, The Traitor, The Tyrant, The Narrator, and The Great Lover. Taken together, these books represent the greatest oeuvre of any late twentieth/early twenty-first century writer of weird fiction — all the more remarkable because of the difficulty of sustaining the visionary quality of such narratives over the novel length. 

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