The rule in Kafka’s Metamorphosis is not only that it’s possible to turn into a bug but that Gregor Samsa, the bug/man himself, will accept that fact without curiosity. It’s easy to forget that there are other ways to tell a story in which such a transformation is possible. The bug/man might become a celebrity, or he might become the object of great scientific interest, or he might triumphantly discover a cure for his condition. That none of these things happen in Metamorphosis is not the reason for the story’s success. What makes it great is the mode and manner of its presentation: the way the narrator, like Gregor Samsa, treats the central problem as a practical inconvenience.
This is obvious enough, but the general rule is worth some consideration. Any story that takes place in a world that is not our own can be understood in two ways. There is the logic of the alternate reality, which must remain internally consistent in order for that reality to be acceptable, and there is the logic of the presentation—how the story is told, how the author chooses to reveal the details of that reality. Metamorphosis is one of the great ideas in literature, but the idea is the How, not the What.
Meeks, Julia Holmes’s first novel, also takes place in an unfamiliar world, one in which young men must spend something like one "season"—spring and summer and early fall—as a kind of professional bachelor. A bachelor must wear a pale suit, cultivate a skill or distinguishing attribute and visit the park each day in search of a woman to marry. Some men may choose to postpone their bachelorhood by joining the army, which involves wandering through the woods in search of an enemy who doesn’t exist, but doing so may prove a critical waste of time. Some bachelors last no more than a season, and some hang on for a few years, but all bachelors who fail to marry can expect a horrible end—a slow death, a violent death or a miserable career as an enslaved "civil servant."
It’s easy to imagine how a story set in this world could become a tiresome allegory, but Meeks is never overbearing or routine. One reason is the strength of Holmes’s writing—her voice is brisk and beautiful, full of a jittery sadness and an uncontrollable kind of joy—but another reason is the way she manages our access to information. We know only what the characters know, which means that we experience the same critical gaps in our understanding and we don’t ever see how it’s possible to succeed in the bachelor’s world. The important thing is not what happens, or why, but how awful it is when something else unaccountably fails to happen. That effect is possible only if the story takes place in an alternate reality, because it depends on our not knowing anything more than Holmes tells us. The fact that the novel remains compelling throughout is a triumph of form and style more than anything else.
We get most of our information about the bachelor’s life from Ben, one of the two protagonists. Ben has just finished his army service and returned home to find that his mother has died, her house has been "reassigned" and the pale suit he was to have inherited from his father has been given away. Without a pale suit, he can’t hope to win the heart of a young woman, but he isn’t allowed to work until he’s married, which means that he can’t earn the money to buy a suit until he has a suit. He is a condemned man—as another character says, a "death-by-attrition variation on the doomed-no-matter-what theme"—but he engages in an earnest struggle nevertheless.