Franz Kafka’s short story A Hunger Artist has always fascinated me. Back in college, when I read it for the first time, it was Kafka’s surreal depiction of a man in a cage who publicly starves himself to death that haunted me. Recently, however, when I assigned the same story to my own college students, I was struck by something that made the story evocative in an entirely new way. Re-reading this story as a middle-aged woman instead of a young coed, it occurred to me that the unnamed hunger artist, who was once heralded as a master of his art form, had outlived his phenomenon and was left with only two options: move on to something else or commit suicide.
In Schadenfreude, the main character, Chad, is a pain comic. Like Kakfa’s hero, his body is his tool and he uses it with great effect. But when the story opens, it is clear that Chad’s body is breaking down and his best days are probably behind him. He, of course, is desperate to make sure that doesn’t happen. After all, it’s a pain comic’s mantra that, “you’re only as good as your last show.”
But while Kafka’s hunger artist had to endure the ignominious ending of his career alone, I simply couldn’t be that cruel. Because of this, Connie Lingus made her entrance. Like other, real-world, redheaded comediennes such as Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, Constance Gestler is a woman of passion and strength, and she comes out of retirement in order to rescue Chad and give him something to hang on to. Whether or not the aging comedians can compete with the raw appetites of a far younger audience remains to be seen, of course. But while two pain comedians may not be funnier than one, they are certainly not lonelier.