Baking with Kafka by Tom Gauld
Tinted in soft pastels and silhouetted with simply-rendered pen-drawn figures, Tom Gauld’s delightfully erudite cartoons show a cultural landscape awkwardly close to anachronism. These strips exist in a world where classical literature goes head-to-head with e-books, where dreams of jetpacks and science fiction intersect with the Victorian countryside and fonder memories of simpler times. Baking with Kafka collects over 150 comics from the pages of The Guardian, The New Yorker and The New York Times, many of which are uproariously clever. Their jokes will particularly resonate with the modern bookworm, and provide a smirky elbow-nudge of inside humor for those well-read enough to appreciate their irreverence.
Gauld’s love of literature and passion for reading is apparent in each of his cartoons. Old Victorian novels are subject to the same satirical eye as Agatha Christie mysteries and fantasy epics, as are major contemporary works by novelists like Jonathan Franzen, Hilary Mantel, and Neil Gaiman. One strip outlines forgotten chapters in Jane Austen’s Emma, including “The Witch’s Prophecy” and “Emma’s Warrior Training.” Neil Gaiman fights trolls on his Norse Mythology book tour, and Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning (but to be honest, a little dry) Wolf Hall gets spiced up like a diner placement with some fun activities like a maze. The multi-colored pie chart in “Content Analysis of the Memoir” brings to mind James Frey or Karl Ove Knausgaard, with the chart’s wedges labeled “Verifiably True,” “Possibly True,” “Misremembered Details,” “Dubious Memories,” “Disputed Facts,” “Artistic License” and “Bullshit” (along with a few other categories).
The literary world is a strange one, and lately it seems on the brink of collapse. Publishers are trying all sorts of tricks to stay relevant in the shadow of our shared impending technological future. In Gauld’s world, “War and Peace Clickbait” is a thing: “This man inherited his father’s fortune. You won’t believe what happened next!” Nanobots lead to nano-librarians, and the “Modern Novelist” can kick back while her “Research-Drone”, “Idea-Droid” and “Dictation-Bot” take care of all the work. Looking to update those stuffy old works of William Shakespeare? Try Gauld’s adaptation generator, which instructs you to “Choose one item from each column to create an innovative production idea!” This results in such gems as a “French Bicycling Romeo & Juliet with a New Ending” and a “Silent Zombie Othello on Mars.”
“Father!” cries a cute pink hardback in one strip, setting up a age-old bit of family drama. “‘Kingdom of Iron’ has asked me to marry him!” “We are classics!” replies another hardback, one looking a little worn and carrying a cane. “No daughter of mine will marry a fantasy novel!” “But he is epic and exciting and I love him!” she pleas, but her father won’t budge. “I won’t have it,” he exclaims, “and besides, I have chosen a husband for you…” In the final frame of the strip, a cool blue book with sunglasses shows up. “Meet ‘Pickwick.com,” her father says. “He’s a humorous modern update of a classic!” Pickwick says “Yo!”, but he’s drowned out by the daughter’s star-crossed cries.
A gag like this is quintessential Gauld, a thoroughly modern twist on a classical foundation. Baking with Kafka is full of these little gems which are sure to delight literary readers from any background. Gauld’s work is not only smart and witty but accessible: a professorial grandfather may find these as enjoyable as his comics-loving grandchildren. It’s a testament to Gauld’s craft, but also to the world of literature, which despite e-books, jetpacks, and updated classics, continues to live on.