K: A Novel
“Even in the darkest sections, Ted O’Connell’s debut novel is upbeat, witty, and full of ideas about art, reality, truth, identity, fate, language, the rise of China on the world stage, Nazi Germany, wealth gaps, and capitalism.”
When we meet Professor Francis Kauffman, he’s living with seven other men in a large cell in a prison called Kun Chong. In China. The conditions are rough. Their wash basin is “vile” and men sleep on the floor many nights. But as Kauffman listens to the “cold hiss of the radiators” he is also writing. At least, composing.
“No pen. No brush. No ink stone. Only memory. I start each session by murmuring from the first line to the most recent line, every word I have composed in the best order, with revisions, until I’m positive I’ll lose nothing. I must have it all down without mistakes before adding another line or two, sometimes an entire page on a good day.”
In Kun Chong, prisoners aren’t permitted the “luxury of literary expression.” The idea is to safeguard the inmates against “subversion and unclean thoughts.”
A note is delivered—a slip of paper. The seven men have been instructed that they must execute one of their own.
This grim and gripping opening chapter to K: A Novel is misleading. In a good way. Most of K concerns itself with how Professor Kauffman found himself in the soul-crushing confines of Kun Chong. Even in the darkest sections, Ted O’Connell’s debut novel is upbeat, witty, and full of ideas about art, reality, truth, identity, fate, language, the rise of China on the world stage, Nazi Germany, wealth gaps, and capitalism. K is about the free flow of ideas and how policing an imagination is as impossible as building a wall to protect a country from a pandemic.
In China, Professor Kauffman has left a job in the insurance industry to teach English at “Cap U.” He is assigned a class called Debate and Critical Thinking—in a country where you can’t mention Tibet or Taiwan or Tiananmen Square. Kauffman asks if it’s okay to debate controversial topics and is told not to worry because he’s an innocent foreigner. He’ll be forgiven. He teaches his students the words pernicious and sedition. And he meets two students, Vesuvius and Queena, who tackle his essay assignments with enthusiasm. Soon, Kauffman is accused of inciting students to protest, of harboring a counter-revolutionary, and of contributing to the instability of the society. For starters.
K is set in the near future. The time is after “that little bump in Chinese history when the Painted Sky Nuclear Power Plant leaked radiation and three banks failed in the same week.” But the China O’Connell writes feels entirely contemporary nonetheless, particularly the government’s efforts to control speech and information. “This was China,” thinks Kauffman. “No windows to or from any other world.”
Kauffman takes us back to his youth as a wannabe writer even as a high school kid in Chicago, and we learn, in bits and pieces, about the escape of Kauffman’s grandmother from the Nazis, about Kauffman’s stint in the corporate world, and more and more about his cellmates, including his doomed nemesis Xu Xuo.
Kauffman recounts his affair with a Chinese woman, Lulu. She doesn’t understand his need to write fiction and wants him to become a business tycoon. Kauffman witnesses a horrific industrial accident from a coffee shop window and later finds himself overcome with laughter, triggered by spotting a Winnie the Pooh handkerchief, while giving a speech filled with “packaged platitudes” at a banquet filled with Chinese dignitaries. In short, Kauffman’s cell is the main setting for the novel’s drama, but K travels far and wide. The novel’s appealing energy is fueled by Ted O’Connell’s keen sense of irony and his eye for detail. Here’s prisoner Kauffman picking scraps at a dump.
“We claw open plastic bags and gut them of anything worth making into something else, looking for shampoo or soup cans. Iron and petroleum products are our specialty. The floodlights scare away most rats. We clamber over laundry machines and disemboweled chair cushions, heel down steep embankments of roof tiles. I suck asbestos from sheaves of splintered tiles as the excavator turns over the top layer, its great hydraulic arm swinging in the night.”
K reads like a mix of Orwell and Borges with a dash of wide-eyed Kerouac—Orwell for the bleak peek into the future, Borges for a dash of surrealism, and Kerouac for Kauffman’s playful spirit. Kauffman lays his “reliable narrator” cards on the table and then tells us straight out, near the end, that memory is loose and, well, this all might be true. Or not.
K ends in violence. And a dream. It’s mystical, unusual, and distinct. It also brings us full circle to Professor Kauffman’s self-proclaimed ability to remember, accurately, the story he’s composing in his head. Kauffman loves to tell stories. It gives him joy. K’s appetite is large. Readers will feel well fed.