In a nutshell, The Trial tells the terrifying tale of Joseph K, a respectable functionary in a bank, who is arrested the morning of his 30th birthday and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime revealed to neither him nor the reader. At his 31st birthday, he is executed in the name of the Law without him nor the reader having gotten any closer to an answer. The book as such chronicles the intervening year of K.'s case, his struggles and encounters with the invisible Law and the untouchable Court. It is an account, ultimately, of state-induced self-destruction. Yet, the "meaning" is far from clear.
To illustrate the "theater of the absurd" feeling that weaves its way throughout the book (and what I have meanwhile learned all of Kafka's books), I provide a synopsis of Chapter Two, and early chapter that discusses K's (his last name is never revealed beyond the initial although other characters' last names are) original dealing with the Court:
K. is summoned to court via phone call on a Sunday. No time is set, but the address is given to him. The address turns out to be a huge tenement building. K. has to explore the various floors what look like residential apartments to find the court, which turns out to be in the attic. The room is airless, shabby, and crowded, and although he has no idea what he is charged with, or what authorizes the process, K. makes a long speech denigrating the whole process, including the agents who arrested him. During this speech an attendant's wife and a man engage in sexual activities. K. then returns home.
It is interesting to note that while Kafka (a German-speaking Czech) wrote the book in 1914-1915, while working as an official in the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, it was not published until after his untimely death in 1925. And we actually have to thank one of Kafka's peer in law school and later literary executor, Max Brod, who became a lifelong devoted friend and was ultimately responsible for preserving much of what exists of Kafka's writing. This is even more remarkable as Kafka in his last will had asked Brod to destroy most of his writings including the yet unfinished The Trial.
So, how do we interpret and make sense of The Trial? In a 2010 paper, Reza Banakar, a Professor of Socio-Legal Studies in London, points out that "many of Kafka’s descriptions of law and legality are often treated as metaphors for things other than law, but also are worthy of examination as a particular concept of law and legality which operates paradoxically as an integral part of the human condition under modernity." Others argued that K.'s arrest and his attempts to extricate himself from an aging, totalitarian bureaucratic system tells the story of the Christian idea of the fallen man and his deep sense of guilt. Lastly, psychological or psychoanalytical approaches held that the story is a reflection of his lifelong tension between bachelorhood and marriage or, on another level, between his skepticism and his religious nature.
However each reader or critique leans in her/his interpretation, many agree that his novel is at times as suffocating to read as the airless rooms of the Court that it describes. What I personally found interesting is that its German title, Der Prozess, connotes both a "trial" and a "process," and - as it was summarized very succinctly elsewhere - it is "perhaps this maddening feeling of inevitability that leaves a lasting visceral impression: the machinery has been set in motion, and the process will grind toward conclusion despite our most desperate exhortations."
Given that you often say to yourself 'this makes no sense' while reading the book, it is perhaps one of the stranger classics on my list or that I even have ever read. But I had always wanted to read 'a Kafka' and in all its maddening weirdness (and ultimate sad ending that so contradicts our Hollywood-movie tuned minds) had a magnetic hold over me to finish it, hoping until the end that at least I (if not K himself) will get to some answer or clarity.
In the end, I can not help myself but recommend this book as it makes you think throughout the book and then afterwards. If that's not your "poison," read it to understand where the term Kafkaesque really comes from.