Our Princess is in Another Castle
Not literal mazes you might find in a children’s activity book, but a kind of bewilderment that comes from trying to sort out or think through something. These thoughts began with my own fiction writing, a story in which a protagonist views his daily life as a labyrinth, with each day being just the passing through of a room within the greater confusing thing. I haven’t been able to shake off these ideas in the two recent novels I’ve trudged through, Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm and Franz Kafka’s The Castle.
Both books are themselves mazes rendered through language rather than space—which is pertinent in today’s bureaucratic society and world in which it’s tough to discern what’s real and what’s make-believe (or, made real) in the media. In The Castle, the protagonist K, a land surveyor summoned to a foreign village but without a supervisor to report to, is searching for a truth: he seeks entry into the castle overlooking the village in the hopes that the count—or any governing body—can legitimize his being there. But instead he becomes trapped outside a complicated bureaucracy mistakenly described by those operating inside of it as “flawless,” despite K’s summoning being the result of an error in the first place.
In The Marbled Swarm, the reader is put in K’s place by navigating a murky and alien environment to arrive at something tangible: the events of the story are enshrouded in carefully stylized language and an intricate knot of parallel plot lines, intended by the narrator to confuse. Reading the book is exploring a dimly lit hall of mirrors led by a suspicious and sinister tour guide, while the reader remains hopeless to grasp a sense of the place to understand why he or she is there. What we know is that the narrator is an aristocratic cannibal who intends on having sex with, killing, preparing and eating a youth. But a concrete opening scene spirals into complexities as identities double, settings shift, and when the narrator claims that he is in fact watching you at this very moment reading the story he has prepared for you—sinisterly boxing you into his world of illusions by the likes of Escher.
In Cooper’s book, language hides the truth rather than giving shape to it. The eponymous “marbled swarm” is a dialect the narrator uses which takes its cadence from a mixture of European languages. It is used to create a sense of truthiness, dancing around a subject without meeting it head-on; consider how a politician answers an interview question without saying anything of substance. The Marbled Swarm is an enigma that makes you feel as though you are witnessing something just out of reach…. but whose existence you must paradoxically question in order to move forward.
The world created by The Marbled Swarm’s unreliable narrator is very much similar to the village and castle that confuses K so much.
In his profile of Shigeru Miyamoto, the man behind Nintendo’s flagship franchises, Nick Paumgarten compares the original Super Mario Bros. to Kafka’s novel: “Mario reminded me of K and his pursuit of the barmaid Frieda … and of the kind of lost-loved-one dreams that The Castle both mimics and instigates.”
The end of each “world” in the game has players infiltrating a castle, fighting Bowser in the hopes of finding Princess Toadstool. But the battle is again and again fruitless (“Our princess is in another castle!”) If Super Mario Bros. rewards you for anything, it’s for determination in a very hopeless-looking cause until, finally and unexpectedly, you meet your goal and save the princess.
But The Castle is famous for having no ending: Kafka left the novel unfinished, abandoning K in the village without ever entering the elusive castle, without his place in the village ever being legitimized. In The Marbled Swarm, when the reader thinks he or she is close to reaching a conclusion, like Mario in Bowser’s decoy castles, it turns out to have been a red herring—so the reader trudges on in the hopes of arriving at a truth the next time around. Like K, he or she cannot ever storm that fortress.
What does this have to do with anything? It’s that we’re constantly put in confused situations through messed up hurdles of language and the confusing representations of reality created by media.
As I said earlier, these books—one released over 80 years ago, the other just last fall—feel relevant in a society where it is for some tough to discern whether even the president is “real.” As our lives migrate to the Internet, the world we experience through representation becomes doubled and changed, like a game of telephone from one source to another (not unlike the parallel threads running through Cooper’s novel meant to throw the reader off), an overflow of information the reader or viewer must sift through to gain some sense of truth, similar to K’s odyssey of meandering through a village whose customs are difficult to grapple. Perhaps Cooper’s narrator demonstrates the bewilderment of today’s “truthiness,” and maybe Kafka is exposing that truth never really existed in the first place.
K is powerless against the castle’s rules. Cooper’s narrator operates without any rules; he works much in the vein of Fox News, MSNBC, and the slippery speech of government officials. And we, like K, face the confusion and helplessness against a manufacturing of reality from powers-that-be: life becomes as “real” as those observed on Jersey Shore, The Hills, or what have you.
So we dance around this maze with our tattered maps.