Mike Keith

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Original text in yellow, anagram in pink.

The original text comprises the first 8497 letters of the story The Metamorphosis by Franz
Kafka. The anagram obeys a second constraint inspired by the two quotations with which it begins.

  As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

  What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream. His room, a regular human bedroom, only rather too small, lay quiet between the four familiar walls. Above the table on which a collection of cloth samples was unpacked and spread out - Samsa was a commercial traveler - hung the picture which he had recently cut out of an illustrated magazine and put into a pretty gilt frame. It showed a lady, with a fur cap on and a fur stole, sitting upright and holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole of her forearm had vanished! Gregor's eyes turned next to the window, and the overcast sky - one could hear rain drops beating on the window gutter - made him quite melancholy. What about sleeping a little longer and forgetting all this nonsense, he thought, but it could not be done, for he was accustomed to sleep on his right side and in his present condition he could not turn himself over. However violently he forced himself towards his right side he always rolled on to his back again. He tried it at least a hundred times, shutting his eyes to keep from seeing his struggling legs, and only desisted when he began to feel in his side a faint dull ache he had never experienced before.

  Oh God, he thought, what an exhausting job I've picked on! Traveling about day in, day out. It's much more irritating work than doing the actual business in the office, and on top of that there's the trouble of constant traveling, of worrying about train connections, the bed and irregular meals, casual acquaintances that are always new and never become intimate friends. The devil take it all! He felt a slight itching up on his belly; slowly pushed himself on his back nearer to the top of the bed so that he could lift his head more easily; identified the itching place which was surrounded by many small white spots the nature of which he could not understand and made to touch it with a leg, but drew the leg back immediately, for the contact made a cold shiver run through him.

  He slid down again into his former position. This getting up early, he thought, makes one quite stupid. A man needs his sleep. Other commercials live like harem women. For instance, when I come back to the hotel of a morning to write up the orders I've got, these others are only sitting down to breakfast. Let me just try that with my chief; I'd be sacked on the spot. Anyhow, that might be quite a good thing for me, who can tell? If I didn't have to hold my hand because of my parents I'd have given notice long ago, I'd have gone to the chief and told him exactly what I think of him. That would knock him endways from his desk! It's a queer way of doing, too, this sitting on high at a desk and talking down to employees, especially when they have to come quite near because the chief is hard of hearing. Well, there's still hope; once I've saved enough money to pay back my parents' debts to him - that should take another five or six years - I'll do it without fail. I'll cut myself completely loose then. For the moment, though, I'd better get up, since my train goes at five.

  He looked at the alarm clock ticking on the chest. Heavenly Father! he thought. It was half-past six o'clock and the hands were quietly moving on, it was even past the half-hour, it was getting on toward a quarter to seven. Had the alarm clock not gone off? From the bed one could see that it had been properly set for four o'clock; of course it must have gone off. Yes, but was it possible to sleep quietly through that ear-splitting noise? well he had not slept quietly, yet apparently all the more soundly for that. But what was he to do now? The next train went at seven o'clock; to catch that he would need to hurry like mad and his samples weren't even packed up, and he himself wasn't feeling particularly fresh and active. And even if he did catch the train he wouldn't avoid a row with the chief, since the firm's porter would have been waiting for the five o'clock train and would have long since reported his failure to turn up. The porter was a creature of the chief's, spineless and stupid. Well, supposing he were to say he was sick? But that would be most unpleasant and would look suspicious, since during his five years' employment he had not been ill once. The chief himself would be sure to come with the sick-insurance doctor, would reproach his parents with their son's laziness and would cut all excuses short by referring to the insurance doctor, who of course regarded all mankind as perfectly healthy malingerers. And would he be so far wrong on this occasion? Gregor really felt quite welt apart from a drowsiness that was utterly superfluous after such a long sleep, and he was even unusually hungry.

  As all this was running through his mind at top speed without his being able to decide to leave his bed - the alarm clock had just struck a quarter to seven - there came a cautious tap at the door behind the head of his bed. "Gregor," said a voice - it was his mother's - "it's a quarter to seven. Hadn't you a train to catch?" That gentle voice! Gregor had a shock as he heard his own voice answering hers, unmistakably his own voice, it was true, but with a persistent horrible twittering squeak behind it like an undertone, that left the words in their clear shape only for the first moment and then rose up reverberating round them to destroy their sense, so that one could not be sure one had heard them rightly. Gregor wanted to answer at length and explain everything, but in the circumstances he confined himself to saying: "Yes, yes, thank you, Mother, I'm getting up now." The wooden door between them must have kept the change in his voice from being noticeable outside, for his mother contented herself with this statement and shuffled away. Yet this brief exchange of words had made the other members of the family aware that Gregor was still in the house, as they had not expected, and at one of the side doors his father was already knocking, gently, yet with his fist. "Gregor, Gregor," he called, "what's the matter with you?" And after a little while he called again in a deeper voice: "Gregor! Gregor!" At the other side door his sister was saying in a low, plaintive tone: "Gregor? Aren't you well? Are you needing anything?" He answered them both at once: "I'm just ready," and did his best to make his voice sound as normal as possible by enunciating the words very clearly and leaving long pauses between them. So his father went back to his breakfast, but his sister whispered: "Gregor, open the door, do." However, he was not thinking of opening the door, and felt thankful for the prudent habit he had acquired in traveling of locking all doors during the night, even at home.

  His immediate intention was to get up quietly without being disturbed, to put on his clothes and above all eat his breakfast, and only then to consider what else was to be done, since in bed, he was well aware, his meditations would come to no sensible conclusion. He remembered that often enough in bed he had felt small aches and pains, probably caused by awkward postures, which had proved purely imaginary once he got up, and he looked forward eagerly to seeing this morning's delusions gradually fall away. That the change in his voice was nothing but the precursor of a severe chill, a standing ailment of commercial travelers, he had not the least possible doubt.

  To get rid of the quilt was quite easy; he had only to inflate himself a little and it fell off by itself. But the next move was difficult, especially because he was so uncommonly broad. He would have needed arms and hands to hoist himself up; instead he had only the numerous little legs which never stopped waving in all directions and which he could not control in the least. When he tried to bend one of them it was the first to stretch itself straight; and did he succeed at last in making it do what he wanted, all the other legs meanwhile waved the more wildly in a high degree of unpleasant agitation. "But what's the use of lying idle in bed," said Gregor to himself.

  He thought that he might get out of bed with the lower part of his body first, but this lower part, which he had not yet seen and of which he could form no clear conception, proved too difficult to move; it shifted so slowly; and when finally, almost wild with annoyance, he gathered his forces together and thrust out recklessly, he had miscalculated the direction and bumped heavily against the lower end of the bed, and the stinging pain he felt informed him that precisely this lower part of his body was at the moment probably the most sensitive.

  So he tried to get the top part of himself out first, and cautiously moved his head towards the edge of the bed. That proved easy enough, and despite its breadth and mass the bulk of his body at last slowly followed the movement of his head. Still, when he finally got his head free over the edge of the bed he felt too scared to go on advancing, for after all if he let himself fall in this way it would take a miracle to keep his head from being injured. And at all costs he must not lose consciousness now, precisely now; he would rather stay in bed.

  But when after a repetition of the same efforts he lay in his former position again, sighing, and watched his little legs struggling against each other more wildly than ever, if that were possible, and saw no way of bringing any order into this arbitrary confusion, he told himself again that it was impossible to stay in bed and that the most sensible course was to risk everything for the smallest hope of getting away from it. At the same time he did not forget meanwhile to remind himself that cool reflection, the coolest possible, was much better than desperate resolves. In such moments he focused his eyes as sharply as possible on the window, but, unfortunately, the prospect of the morning fog, which muffled even the other side of the narrow street, brought him little encouragement and comfort. "Seven o'clock already," he said to himself when the alarm clock chimed again, "seven o'clock already and still such a thick fog." And for a little while he lay quiet, breathing lightly, as if perhaps expecting such complete repose to restore all things to their real and normal condition.

"Out there in the President's mountainside retreat, subjects such as the Soviet Union seem to haunt Mr. Reagan the way vows to read Proust dog other Americans at their leisure."
- Francis X. Clines, The New York Times, mid-Eighties.

"This may be the only time in history in which the words 'Mr. Reagan' and 'read Proust' will appear in the same sentence."
- Geoffrey Stokes in The Village Voice, the following month.


  For a time, in the days before he read Proust, Bill went to bed early, the way he thought Mr. Reagan might do before a lively day fighting the Evil Empire. Today, however, it was taking him longer to wake up than it takes Mr. Reagan's horse to read Proust. He lay slow-headedly on the bed and gave a quick kick to try and rouse himself - the way Mr. Reagan would do, perhaps, if asked to read Proust. He hiccoughed and sat up, looking like Mr. Reagan on a BBC show called "How To Read Proust". Then he sank down again, feeling as out of place, suddenly, as Beowulf or Mr. Reagan or a Blackfoot Indian in a competition to see who could read Proust without sounding hollow.

  What's goin' on? he wondered, yawning, with a sudden desire to do more than just read Proust with Mr. Reagan's cute intern. Her biological clock, she kept reminding him, was like a tollbooth collector on the Mr. Reagan Parkway that would just as soon collect your soul as read Proust. He tried to fight off the metaphor but ended up giggling "c'est la vie!" - a phrase Mr. Reagan might have uttered if he hadn't been so lightweight an intellectual as to not even know why to read Proust.

  In a flash he threw off the filthy bedcovers, fully awake, and then had a frightful scare - almost as bad as when half of Mr. Reagan's staff decided to read Proust 'ex officio'. "Something is wrong, Mr. Reagan," he hinted to the air (for affecting an official relationship with the Oval Office was one of the highlights of his convoluted way of fighting off the obsessive-compulsive affliction that made him constantly want to read Proust). He noticed that, illogically, he was clutching Mr. Reagan's autobiography in one hand, holding the Kama Sutra in another (open to the page with a diagram of the position called "How Not To Read Proust"), and yet two more hands still wiggled in the air. He admitted to himself that last night had been quite a Bacchic feast, involving three bottles of Mr. Reagan's private label and a dinner companion who often collected and read Proust, but finding himself turned into a more-than-quadruped was, he thought, a bit much (to be blunt, unbelievable). "Not to quibble, with either Mr. Reagan or those who read Proust," he quietly winced, "but I feel like the Seventh-Day-Adventist envoy to the Twelfth Scottish Colloquium on Prudent Thinking - i.e., sheepish."

  Bill heard the strains of violoncello music coming from the hall, reminding him of Mr. Reagan's bewitching assistant - the one who liked to read Proust while standing on one leg. Despite looking like the nightmare Mr. Reagan might have about being forced to read Proust during a bucolic holiday, his twelvefold symmetry was, he concluded, mind-bogglingly unforgettable. He recalled something about a fellow named Sam-something turning into a beetle (did he read Proust to find that, or someone else pointless, like Kafka or Beckett?), and this seemed frightfully appropriate, like Mr. Reagan showing up at a peace summit without his vice president. "One thing is certain, Mr. Reagan," he effused again, "I won't have to read Proust any more to impress chicks - just think what my volleyball skills'll be like!"

  So, though he could have stayed in that bed all day and read Proust, Bill collected his things and set off for his office - one in which Mr. Reagan had once famously exhibited his tendency for flatulence, without so much as a 'pardon me' to excuse the chocolate smell. On the way he passed by the local hotel and the outdoor market, with its well-grown vegetables, fortune-teller booths (decorated with occult symbols that one might have to read Proust or Baudelaire to understand) and vans of movie memorabilia (ten-cent pictures of virile Mr. Reagan in his salad days, etc.), then ended his daily voyage by the building fence, just as the nine-o'clock bell sounded.

  He beavered away 'til lunchtime, except for a quick stop at the water cooler, where his fellows were obsessed with the solemn discussion of two quite different topics: last night's football game between Mr. Reagan's home team and Senator Blodgett's West Coast buffoons, and whether one should read Proust to help make the weighty choices in the upcoming election. Maybe it was the quickness with which he muttered "Mr. Reagan sucks" and left, or maybe none of his colleagues had ever actually read Proust, but somehow Bill managed to fortify himself in his office again without anyone noticing that he had been transmuted during the night into something resembling the order Flagellata. Which, now that he thought about his tendency to read Proust and fixate on Mr. Reagan, might be a fitting appellation for him in more ways than one.

  Bill went through the shelves looking to find some easier task to keep his mind occupied, but ended up once again childishly imitating Mr. Reagan's Chief of Staff helplessly trying to read Proust while clutching a small vat of formaldehyde. The strangeness of this left even him speechless - kind of like the time his wife's vehicle (whose license plate read PROUST) popped its clutch and nearly flew into Mr. Reagan's parking space at Dulles Airport.

  As he thus cheerlessly occupied himself, he heard the gentle strains of music from the conference room down the hall, after which one of his colleagues (who sat, along with the others, by the synthetic bust of Mr. Reagan, working on the new ad campaign that shrewdly attempted to get teenagers to read Proust by depicting the whole thing as tragically hip) began to sing, somewhat loudly:

  Cheesecake on Monday and steelheads on Tuesday,
  Bands that read Proust playing music on Blues Day,
  While Mr. Reagan seductively swings,
  These are a few of my favorite things!

  Vowelless words or an anagram nifty,
  One lovely girl who can read Proust (or fifty),
  Old Mr. Reagan's selected sayings...
  These are a few of my favorite things!

  He thought it was rather catchy, though still maybe as worthless as a self-help book called "How To Read Proust Whilst Bewitching Mr. Reagan". Whistling himself, Bill started to switch off the lights and exit for the day when the hostess from Mr. Reagan's favorite restaurant came through the door, clutching a technical manual on switching circuits in one hand with a well-read Proust in the other. He got a bit twitchy: whether because of the illusion that her stylish shoes reflected well enough to read Proust in, or the fact that her level of cholesterol was so clearly much smaller than Mr. Reagan's, he wasn't sure... but her small, fixed shadow cast a tender spell on him: this was entirely clear. "Most likely, Mr. Reagan," he once again affected, "I need to read Proust", as he felt the sudden chill from outside and heard the Hitchcockian blackbirds whoosh by the window - what an evil sight!

  As Mr. Reagan shiftlessly spoke on TV about the latest petty hostilities in the foothills of the Carpathians, Bill thought about what he might do later (should he read Proust, or some other unworthy novelist?). A quick wave of exclamations welled up in him (including "Hell!", "Christ!", "Whatever...", "Oh, shit!", "Honestly!", "Oh, bother!", "What the Devil?" - even "Mr. Reagan!" - and a bunch of others that a good Catholic would have to read Proust to discover) after which - good nihilist that he was - he decided that he didn't give a damn what he looked like: he was going to defy the odds by indulging in his favorite fetish tonight, multiple limbs episode or no.

  He passed through the trendy Twelfth St. Heights, whose twenty-odd eclectic residents were as likely to read Proust as to be Buddhists, and then turned beyond the hotels onto the street before Pennsylvania Ave (y'know, the one Mr. Reagan resides on), displaying his usual panoply of endowments: the shifty squint in his eye, his technique of dressing in filthy clothes to avoid being noticed, the confident way he would descend the church stairs (past the bent-over drunks and sensitive effusions of Methodist doctrine), the hypnotic look of someone placid enough to summon the Heavenly Hosts the while in the throes of childbirth. A bisexual cyclist wheeled past on the way to a Celtic Festival, so Bill quickly attempted to look like he read Proust until the thoroughfare was empty enough for him to approach the vicinity of Mr. Reagan's seemingly invincible yet decidedly un-Benedictine enclave.

  Mr. Reagan's staff began to exit the White House, looking to a man (and woman) like the scientists who insisted that the inability to read Proust could be definitively located in a specific defective gene (the seventieth, if he recalled the Eyewitness News story adequately). Inevitably, after the quixotic Chief of Staff, the handsome agent who was wounded before he could read Proust, the dishonest Fed Chairman devoted to Voodoo Economics, the clownish soldier, the lively Viennese envoy... there SHE was, the childish yet exquisite intern that made the whole administration of Mr. Reagan worthwhile: white, healthy, statuesque, chesty, uninhibited, splendid: the queen of Bill's loincloth, the ultimate bittersweet obsession; and, as was his habit, he decisively stepped behind the shrub and unzipped the front of his pants (making sure that no one was downwind, of course). In a short time he finished, then stood, ebullient, as the queenliest of women went by the shrub on the other side, unaware of the indecent delinquent who viewed her still, hidden like the quiet fellow who once tried to kill Mr. Reagan when he refused to read Proust during the President's Conference.

  He looked down at his hands, and - after wiping them off - realized that he suddenly had the same complement of limbs as Mr. Reagan or Elvis Costello or the guy who read Proust out loud in the subway - not a thousand, not nine, but two. It must have been bad whitefish the night before, he decided, that led to this inherently odd daydream (either that, or friendly Mr. Reagan actually read Proust, and a host of other counterfactuals were true!). Whatever it was, he was happy it was over (as Mr. Reagan was to say two decades later when he finally did read Proust), and as he listened to the buses and autos on the thoroughfare he noticed a woman approaching, and so he softened, swallowed, and met her with his least shifty look, touching her gently on the arm: "Hey, sweet Hillary" he invited, "Ready to go for a good bottle of Chianti?"

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Updated: May 10, 2016


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