NEW YORK — Our infatuation with fairy tales is at an all-time high, from young adult novels like “Cinder” by Marissa Meyer to darker fare from Hollywood, such as the upcoming Angelina Jolie vehicle “Maleficent.” Of course, there’s a long history of grim (and Grimm) tales that have fascinated children, who are as delighted by the spooky and scary as they are by Cinderella’s mice. It’s just we’ve spent a long time Disney-fying them for modern audiences.
Matthue Roth’s new book “My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs” fits perfectly into this genre of satisfyingly strange tales for children. Yes, they’re illustrated Kafka stories, which makes it sound like it’s the sort of wink-wink-nod-nod tchotchke you might pick up for a gift for new parents. When you talk to Roth, however, you realize “My First Kafka” is no joke.
The 34-year-old stumbled upon the idea after reading Kafka to his two daughters.
“It happened because it happened,” he says over tea in DUMBO, Brooklyn. “I was sitting around reading Kafka, my kids wanted a story, we’d already read all their books, and I was like, okay, here we go! Here’s a story. They’re also really into Borges.” One of their current favorites is “The Widow Ching-Pirate.” (Clearly, they have excellent taste in magical realist authors.)
“My First Kafka” is comprised of three stories: “Excursion Into the Mountains,” “The Metamorphosis,” and “Josefine the Singer, or The Mouse People.” The words are stark against gothy, black-and-white illustrations by Rohan Daniel Eason. The sentences are succinct and satisfying, presented with the sort of bizarre world logic Kafka is known for.
Instead of unknown crimes and piles of never-ending paperwork – the more mundane, adult terrors of Kafka’s world – we’re given the sad tales of confused, lost creatures. Yet the grotesquerie of a man who is inexplicably transformed into a bug is exactly the sort of thing that would thrill a young audience.
“My younger daughter is three years old, and she wakes up every day and things happen that have never happened before in the universe, to her,” Roth tells me. “My niece’s tooth fell out – she’s six – and [my daughter] was horrified because teeth are in your mouth! They’re not supposed to come out of it. And now my [older] daughter who’s five can’t wait for her tooth to come out, because it’s not that they can’t separate horrifying things from amazing things, but they both have this same kind of wonder, mystery, etherealness attached to it.”
The palpable delight over a simple loose tooth is something Roth shares, and it’s contagious. He’s sincere and effusive, not to mention prolific. He’s written about everything from punk rock to his gradual shift towards becoming an Orthodox Jew; he even wrote a novel about a kung fu-fighting supermodel.
“Kafka” is his fifth published novel – he’s been writing novels since he was 13 – and it’s certainly not his last. He’s already finished one book that his agent is trying to sell, and he’s almost done with yet another that’s “about [a group] of 70-year-old Jewish men who are pirates.”
When he’s not working at Amplify as a lead writer and game developer, or hanging out at his Brooklyn home with his wife, Itta Werdiger Roth, and their two kids, he’s studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at Brooklyn College. He uses his subway commute to write on scraps of paper, forgoing fancy notebooks for scraps cut into quarters and stapled together.
“It’s going in the trash, so if something lasts, if something’s good enough to stick in my pocket till the end of the day, then ken yehi ratzon, awesome, I’ll take it home and type it up, if I have time.”
Knowing Roth, he’ll make time.