K, by Ted O’Connell. Santa Fe, New Mexico: SFWP, May 2020. 318 pages. $15.95, paper.
Ted O’Connell’s debut novel introduces us to Francis Kauffman, an American professor who finds himself in a Chinese prison cell with six inmates, one of which he and the others are ordered to execute. K weaves back and forth between Kauffman’s grim existence in Kun Chong Prison and his former life as a free man in Beijing and Chicago. Although the reader isn’t privy to the exact time frame, we sense that it is taking place in a not-too distant future where society at large has continued to neglect its obligations both to the earth and to one another.
The freedoms Kauffman once enjoyed are stripped of him. There are, as Kauffman states, “no windows to or from any other world.” A prolific writer, he also suffers every indignity in Kun Chong but none as soul crushing as being forbidden to express himself artistically. Determined to continue, Kauffman works daily to commit his stories to memory:
I sit in a wooden chair to the left of the entrance, looking out through the bars into the corridor, listening to the cold hiss of the radiators. This is how I do my writing. No pen. No Brush. No ink stone. Only memory.
Eventually this sole luxury—thinking about art—is taken from him as well.
Initially, I worried I was the wrong person to read and review this book. Not that I didn’t think it would be excellent literature, which it is, but rather I wondered if I would be able to stomach the darkness that lurked within the pages of a book set inside a futuristic Chinese prison. It turns out I could. Yes, there is stench and decay both moral and otherwise. For example, Kauffman reports:
Every day we smell bile, shit, tooth decay, and a fetor like rotten onions from our armpits, the rank hint of semen in our loins, fungus from our toes. Even our ears stink.
Yes, there are rats and unspeakable brutalities both physical and mental. Cold, calculating characters abound. Humanity itself hangs in the lurch on every page. But against so much darkness, the light shines much brighter.
For instance, while in a work camp at a garbage dump, Kauffman stumbles upon a pink house “that looks straight out of the Ozarks.” He imagines banjo music, hears a beautiful mountain stream. There are dollhouses and recollections of Berlin, where he spent some of his childhood. Memories of bicycle rides in Beijing with his lover holding him tightly around the waist. Eating an orange becomes an exquisite act:
It has an outie navel as though to prove it’s a living thing with a mother. While other workers tear into their fruit like ravenous hyenas, I undress my orange slowly, pulling off sticky cheeks so as not to injure anything underneath.
Also beautiful are the relationships that form despite the ugly circumstances Kauffman wishes to escape. The camaraderie that develops between Kauffman and his cellmates propels the story, despite the fact that he pretends not to speak or understand Chinese:
The men clap me on the back and give me a place at the head of the table, indicating the food tray as though it’s a setting of fine China at the Western Hotel. I see elegantly-curled rind of pork, pearly rice, and dainty krill among the spinach. Wu Kaiming is laughing so hard, tears darken his shirt like rain drops. Yu’s eyes are damp with laughter. Merry faces all around. As far as I know, there is no phrase that singularly means laughing while in prison, but we could use one. The gut-wrenching salvation of laughing in jail cannot be compared to any other joy.
Femininity is not forgotten in a plot driven by overwhelming masculinity. Vulnerable yet strong and well developed female characters also exist within these pages which was unexpected given that so much of the book is set in a prison or work camp.
The conclusion provides a haunting, yet subtle, irony that I did not fully realize until three a.m. the day after I finished the book. This is the kind of novel that makes you do just that. It wakes you from your dreams to consider its deeper possibilities. Many of the events you think could or might happen, do happen. But they unfold in the most unexpected ways, taking you on detours unimagined.
At its heart, K is about our freedom to express. The novel forces the reader reconsider the reality of a dystopia we hope we’ll never actually endure. This is a deep look at freedom from a reluctant outsider who wants to crawl back into his past. It examines political, social, and environmental ramifications of a system that views profit above all else—these are timely and urgent topics given the chaos of the reality of modern life.
Amy Stonestrom‘s essays have appeared in Brevity, Superstition Review, Defunkt, Storm Cellar Quarterly, Parhelion and others. Her work has received awards from the National League of American Pen Women and from Street Light Magazine’s memoir/essay contest. Currently an MFA candidate in Bay Path University’s creative nonfiction program, she lives with her husband and son on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. You can find her at amystonestrom.com.