In "First as Tragedy, Then as Farce" (Verso: 158 pp., $12.95), the philosopher and cultural-theorist Slavoj Zizek uses his razzle-dazzle postmodern intellect to probe the economic catastrophe of 2008. Capitalism is an ideology, Zizek argues, and the notion of a global free market was as utopian, and as potentially delusional, as communism. His critique pursues this idea through the ironies of the collapse and the bailout. One of his points is that Alan Greenspan overestimated the rationality of free market agents and forgot to consider a quite reasonable expectation that the speculators held, namely that "the risks would be worth taking, since, in the event of a financial collapse, they could count on the state to cover their loss." In other words, in the United States, only bankers can rely on socialism, and the elite will always do a good job of protecting itself. Zizek doesn't let the left off the hook either, showing how the inability to present a fiscal alternative permitted Wall Street to regroup and present the bailout as a favor that was being done for us all. Zizek, a Marxist, writes with passion and an aphoristic energy that is spellbinding. He's less persuasive, predictably, when he tries to make the case that communism will bounce back and win in the end. He remains, though, a great provocateur and an immensely suggestive and even dashing writer. "Reality exists so that we can speculate about it," he says, and another recent paperback, "In Defense of Lost Causes" (Verso: 504 pp., $19.95) presents a more sweeping panorama of his contentious perceptions. "We believe, not less, but much more than we imagine we believe," Zizek writes, while his exhilarating imagination burrows like a termite into the foundation of why and how we believe.
New translations of "The Castle," "The Trial" and "The Metamorphosis: And Other Stories" ( Oxford University Press: $13.95 each) make Kafka feel fresh once more. Anthea Bell's translation of "The Castle" goes for speed and crispness. "It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of Castle Mount, for mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void." The cover illustrations to these lovely books derive from sketches made by Kafka himself and confirm our idea of him as someone who made his torment feel universal by presenting it with such humor and terrifying clarity.
Finally, Tove Jansson's "The True Deceiver" ( New York Review Books: $14.95), translated into English from the Swedish for the first time by Thomas Teal, makes a dark companion to her glowing "The Summer Book." Here the setting is Finnish winter, and the almost Highsmithian subject concerns a woman who inveigles herself in the life of a famous, and rich, writer. Jansson's writing is, as always, understated yet acute and thrilling. She's a writer you discover and then want to tell everybody else about.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place" and writes the monthly Paperback Writers column at latimes.com/books.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times