Registration Now Open for the K Book Klub!
To register simply commit a crime against an authoritarian state tantamount to “severely disrupting social harmony.”†
Registration Fee: Eight years of your life.
Let’s be honest, there’s no cutesy cocktail that goes well with a story about a strange and sometimes loveable man in prison—but if you must drink alcohol during your book klub meeting, the most appropriate drink is no doubt bai jiu, or white liquor, which can be purchased online or in Chinatown if you live near there. Bai jiu is best consumed out of tiny ceramic cups. FYI the Chinese word for cup, bei, is a very cute word. Just before you down this harsh stuff, toast your estimable Klub members by saying, “Gan bei!” dry cup. Drinking is most appropriate while discussing “The Tower of Babble” chapter, where Kauffman gives his awkward speech to a roomful of powerful Chinese dignitaries.
(Or How to Pronounce Certain Words)
Kun Chong: “Coon Chong”
Xu Xuo: Kind of like “Shoe, shoe-O” but not exactly. Put some teeth and spit into it. The “x” sound in Chinese is a combination of the “sh” and “ch” sounds.
Wu Kaiming: “Whoo-kai-ming”
Bai jiu: “Bye Joe!” as in “See you later, Joe, I’m off to get drunk with my Klub members.”
Doctor Xia: “Shcee-uh”
Kauffman: Pronounced just like the bagelry on Dempster Street in Skokie, Illinois.
In the Event You are Trying to Hook Up with Someone in Your Book Klub
Maybe choose a different book? Forget I said that. (Bad marketing. Bad, bad marketing.) K has already been selected for the meeting, and that special someone who intelligently reads every book is sitting across from you with their handsome knees touching, ready for your romantic salvo. Not a lot of gushy parts in this novel, but see what happens if you bring up the scene on page 80 where Kauffman says, “There are many delights in this world but not many compare to riding a lover on the back of a bicycle on a warm day in Spring.” Ooh la, la. Kauffman does have a girlfriend, recall, in his Beijing life before he gets thrown into prison. Another area to exploit for romantic conquest would be the tender moments near the end of the story when Kauffman bonds with his brother inmates—all of them huddled around bonfires in the “Area 44” labor camp. Finally, the kinkier among you may enjoy locking eyes awkwardly when discussing the section where Fang falls in love (under a door!!) with a woman he has never actually seen.
The most common question I get asked is how I came up with the idea for the novel. I’ve answered this truthfully a couple different ways in interviews, linked below, but the short version is that one day back in the States after my first stint in China I heard a story on NPR about a Western guy who got into some kind of street fight in China and wound up in a prison with several other men, all Chinese. That story sort of stuck in my head and came out as a “what if” writing idea in the fall of 2012 in Beijing.
The other question I often get is “How long did it take you to write this book?” I wrote a big chunk in a 5-week binge in the winter of 2013 while I was living along in Beijing at a time when my family was back in the States tending to loved ones. Then, off and on from there, I took five years to finish and polish the novel.
I am happy to join your group virtually or in person to answer more questions, like, “Are you single?” or “Did you ever spend time in a Chinese prison?” The answers are no, though I’m so dang tempted to lie on the second one. Faulkner lied about crap like that all the time. Missed my chance.
I’ve been coached by others in the business to create a discussion guide for K Book Klub, but I trust that you’re all adults and sick of homeschooling your kids and therefore might prefer to wing it. If you are needy for questions that might be useful to a group that finds itself fully drunk off multiple shots of bai jiu, I offer these stimulating prompts:
1) Consider ways that this book isn’t about imprisonment. In what ways is it about art, capitalism, or something else?
2) Do you feel that “dystopian” is an apt term for K: A Novel? One apparently intelligent Amazon reviewer said, “dystopian is a bit of a misnomer for this book,” and he/she meant it as a compliment.
3) There seem to be such things as “guy” books and “gal”books (okay, nobody says “gal books” anymore, in fact, not ever, but you get my point). Is there anything about this book that makes it more appealing to women or to men?
4) Which moment do you think changes Kauffman the most?
5) In your klub, are there any big Kafka fans? If so, where do they recognize places where O’Connell (that’s me trying to distance myself from me) burgles from or alludes to the great Bohemian master? Does this enhance the work for you? Distract? Make no difference?
6) Which member of your klub has the highest ratio of doing the least careful reading while puzzlingly offering the strongest opinions? Is he a guy? [I’m kidding!]
7) Which is Kauffman’s most irrational action?
8) Other than Kauffman, which character is your favorite creation? And a somewhat different question, which supporting character do you have the most affection for?
9) Finish this sentence. “What was O’Connell thinking when he wrote________________________?”
10) Discussion questions should come in nice round numbers, such as 10 or 12, so let this be the last. (Notice, too, that I didn’t pull too much of that high school textbook crap where each question is actually three. So uncool.) Question #10 reads as follows: A good ending is said to have surprise and inevitability. Do the final pages of K: A Novel fit that bill?
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Kauffman the Prisoner
Kauffman the Professor
Kauffman the Executive
Kauffman the Writer
Kauffman the Son
Brother Gao – A peaceful little guy with strong morals
Fang – Alpha male Ponzi schemer
Xu Xuo – The one who must be killed
Kuku – College kid imprisoned for helping students cheat on the national college entrance exam.
Yu, Wu Kaiming, & “Jack”: Imprisoned for drug and fraud-type crimes.
Doctor Xia – physician who treats Kauffman in the final chapters
Vesuvius –One of K’s senior business students who gets arrested for writing an incendiary letter
Queena – Her friend. Seeks shelter in K’s apartment after joining an underground activist group.
Dean Chong – K’s amiable supervisor at Cap U, famous for his donkey stories
Mr. Li – CEO of China Life and Casualty, Kauffman’s boss
Lulu – Kauffman’s girlfriend
Otto Kauffman – K’s overbearing Jewish father. Spirited out of Nazi Germany as an infant, he founded a major insurance firm in Chicago before losing it all in the 2008 recession
Beckah Kauffman – K’s beloved younger sister, a harpist
Brigitte Kauffman –K’s mother, a Catholic from Berlin
Amschel Kauffman – K’s grandfather, a stained-glass artisan imprisoned at Sachsenhausen during WW II
Mac –Not family exactly but K’s best friend in Chicago, a literary critic