Lookups for Kafkaesque spiked dramatically on May 17th after the Man Booker prize for 2016 was awarded to Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian. This work, translated from Korean into English by Debbie Smith, has been described by its British publishers (and by a number of reviewers) as Kafka-esque.
The word derives from the famed Czech novelist Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whose prose became so synonymous with the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual in the 20th century that writers began using his name as an adjective a mere 16 years after his death.
Not unnaturally, this drives him into a Kafkaesque persecution mania of such dimensions as to render him quite unfit for crime and make even constables and peasant girls address him as “You neurotic!”
—The New Statesman and Nation, 27 April 1940
The word joined a number of other literary eponyms, including Dickensian and Byronic. However, Kafkaesque has seen quite a bit more use than most such words, leading to occasional charges that the word has been watered down and given a lack of specificity due to its overuse.
In the nearly 70 years since his death, we've promoted Franz Kafka from a merely great writer to an all-purpose adjective, and that word - Kafkaesque - now gets tossed around with cavalier imprecision, applied to everything from an annoying encounter with a petty bureaucrat to the genocidal horrors of the Third Reich.
—The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), 31 January 1992