Robert Minto

The Romance of Distance Has Faded

April 16, 2020

“We no longer use the term ‘skyscraper’ so much—the romance of distance has faded.” — Kim Dovey

The web stretched across a floor-to-ceiling window. I was in Toronto, in a short term rental on the 25th floor of a highrise. It fulfilled a childhood ambition of mine to live, however briefly, in a tower. I would be there for several weeks, and I planned to spend a lot of time standing at the window. But no part of my plan involved watching a spider. Her fragile architecture blocked my view of the skyline I intended to study. In the end, I mostly studied her.

Because the gusting air blew dozens of insects against the building all day long, the web was always tattered by sunset. Dangling carcasses plinked against the glass. Then, overnight, the web’s Palladian symmetry would be restored. Did the spider eat in the night everything she caught in the day? Cut loose what she couldn’t eat? Store the excess somewhere else? I tried to stay up late and watch, sipping whiskey with my face inches from the glass. But I always tired before the repairs began. I never saw her at work.

“One night I kept on whimpering for water,” wrote Kafka, in the famous letter to his father, “not, I am certain, because I was thirsty, but probably partly to be annoying, partly to amuse myself. After several vigorous threats had failed to have any effect, you took me out of bed, carried me out onto the balcony, and left me there alone for a while in my nightshirt, outside the shut door.” 

He found this punishment so excessive and confusing that he could hardly connect it to the ostensible crime. “Even years afterward,” he wrote, “I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the balcony…”

Kafka drew upon this memory in writing the novel-fragment known as Amerika or The Man Who Disappeared. It is the tale of an immigrant named Karl Roßmann, who arrives on a boat in America where he embarks upon a riches-to-rags story of absurd horror. He first encounters a balcony in his American uncle’s home. From it he can see a street which “appeared to be a swirling kaleidoscope of distorted human figures and the roofs of vehicles of all kinds, from which a new and amplified and wilder mixture of noise, dust and smells arose, and all this was held and penetrated by a mighty light, that was forever being scattered, carried off and eagerly returned by the multitudes of objects, and that seemed so palpable to the confused eye that it was like a sheet of glass spread out over the street that was being continually and violently smashed.” 

Karl begins to spend a lot of time standing on this balcony staring down. His uncle disapproves, the first hint that their relationship will sour, that Karl will be exiled and abandoned into the foreign countryside:

Such solitary inactivity, gazing down on an industrious New York day, might be permitted to a visitor, and perhaps even, with reservations, recommended to him, but for someone who would be staying here it was catastrophic, one could safely say, even if it was a slight exaggeration. And the uncle actually pulled a face each time when, in the course of one of his visits, which he made at unpredictable times but always once a day, he happened to find Karl on the balcony. Karl soon realized this, and so he denied himself, as far as possible, the pleasure of standing out on the balcony.

While I was in Toronto, the spider did better up there on the 25th floor than I did. 

The splendid isolation and godlike vista were fine. I liked to be awakened by unobstructed sunlight, to sit at night in the dark transported by the cyberpunk neon and glitter in every direction. But familiarity numbed me to the pleasure and I became acquainted with the petty annoyances: elevator traffic jams, a fire alarm that sent me running down twenty-five flights of smoky stairs fully expecting to die, and loneliness. The distance and rushing wind made it seem like I was perched on an airless spike above the social oxygen of the city, surrounded by people but unable to touch or talk to them.

Why had I dreamed about this as a child?

That the highrise was even an object of aspiration depended on the misleading context of my fantasy life. I had in mind the skylines of big American cities as seen from a distance and the living spaces of the super-rich as seen in Hollywood films and on television, elegant glass-walled penthouses. I did not have in mind the lived reality of high-density housing as it is known to the majority of people who occupy it. I began to wonder how it feels to live in a Singaporean HDB flat, a Czech Panelák, or a tower block in West London.

In one of many vicious ironies of Kafka’s novel fragment, the pleasure that Karl denied himself of standing on the balcony in his Uncle’s house returns later as a form of torture.

Karl is exiled from the Uncle’s house, falls in with bad company and, after a series of increasingly unfortunate personal and social failures, finds himself staying, half-a-prisoner, in the home of a woman named Brunelda. She exiles him to her balcony. Now he is trapped, and learns that Brunelda intends to keep him as a servant. He is expected to remain on the balcony, peering down at the street, until Brunelda rings a bell indicating he’s wanted. He can see other people, the neighbours, playing cards and making love and doing ordinary things on their balconies, but when he asks the other man trapped with him on the balcony if he knows any of those other people, he says, “Almost no one. That’s the drawback to my position.”

This is the archetype of Kafka’s nightmare. He always felt  disproportionately condemned by unreceptive judges; he worried that the  surest human bond could suddenly disintegrate; and he felt alienated from normal social existence, locked forever on an existential balcony in a spiritual night.

One week before I had to leave Toronto, the spider in my window disappeared. The last I saw of her she was pouncing on a late afternoon fly, her web torn to shreds by too much success. I expected to see it the next morning renewed, glistening and symmetrical. But I woke and she was gone. A single thread, floating like the world’s thinnest flag, was all that remained of her time in the upper regions of the air.


Robert Minto is an essayist, critic, and writer of speculative fiction. He lives in Pittsburgh, tweets @SolemnPhiz, and blogs at robertminto.com.