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Cover me

December 21, 2008 |  9:16 am


A month or so ago, a friend of my son's made him a CD mix of songs by the band Fountains of Wayne; it's been living in the car ever since. The music is terrific, and also somewhat unexpected: Among other things, there's a cover of Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time," which, stripped of her cloying voice and studio overproduction, reveals itself to be (dare I say it) a pretty rocking little song.

Listening to it this morning, I was reminded of one of my enduring frustrations with writing — that you can't cover a book or story by someone else. You can quote, you can review, you can translate, you can pay homage, but to create a literal cover version? Literature has no mechanism for such an act.

Or does it? As I think about it, I can come up with two possible exceptions: Philip Roth's 1972 novella "The Breast," which spins off Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" to tell the story of a man who awoke one morning from troubled dreams to find himself changed into a monstrous breast in his bed, and Peter Kuper's "The Metamorphosis," a graphic novel version of the same Kafka story that, in its own odd way, is so faithful to the original that to call it an adaptation is to entirely miss the point.

Is it telling that both have their origins in the same piece of writing? Is it something about Kafka, or about "The Metamorphosis" itself? Are there other literary covers that I'm missing? Maybe this is just the tip of the iceberg, a subgenre waiting to be found.

— David L. Ulin