A Bug's Life: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Bug's Life: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa

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It’s tempting to say something catchy about Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, like “Franz Kafka meets Zelig meets Forrest Gump in this picaresque novel about what really happened at the end of Kafka’s infamous short story, ‘The Metamorphosis.’” But first-time Burlington author Marc Estrin’s novel is much more ambitious. Estrin has written a unique and unconventional book about one cockroach’s search for meaning.

According to Kafka, fabric salesman Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find he had turned into an insect — everyone assumes it was a cockroach, though Kafka actually didn’t specify. At the end of the story, poor Gregor is “taken care of” by the Samsas’ housekeeper — presumably squished.

Insect Dreams opens as the housekeeper sells Gregor to a Vienna freak show owned by Amadeus Hoffnung, a bit of a freak himself, who becomes Gregor’s appreciative mentor. Gregor is by far the most intelligent member of the troupe, and his and Amadeus’ mutual interest in philosophy and literature leads to a close friendship. Gregor has major drawing power: Not only is he a six-foot-tall cockroach, he’s a dynamic speaker. Attendance at his nightly lectures on Einstein, Spengler and Rilke are soon standing-room-only. Gregor’s fame spreads around the world; reporters from all over cover a press conference at which Gregor is x-rayed by Wilhelm Roentgen — the machine’s inventor — to prove he is not a man in a cockroach suit.

But Gregor eventually tires of this life, sensing he has a deeper purpose. A way out of his encroaching despair serendipitously appears in an invitation to judge a dance contest in America, where “The Gregor” has become all the rage.

Estrin inserts his protagonist, Zelig-like, into history after he arrives in New York. Gregor takes in life with every feeler, befriending and inspiring luminaries such as feminist Alice Paul, and finding another mentor in composer/insurance magnate Charles Ives. He gets involved in all sorts of events: He protests the Sacco and Venzetti executions; he is presented as “evidence” of evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial; and he mixes with both elite society and Lower East Side immigrants.

Gregor eventually becomes a sort of über-actuarial and is hired by the Franklin Roosevelt for President campaign. He takes up residence in a White House closet — Eleanor Roosevelt herself encourages him to embrace his “cockroachness.” Even the Roosevelt children develop an appreciation for him:

They began just by riding on his back, falling off in the carpeted hallways when he (intentionally) jerked around or accelerated quickly, and… they were able to add “Bucking Blattid” to their hilarious games. But eventually the most fun of all was climbing the walls, and even walking the ceiling. It required much extra strapping… and after a few days, the game took on the safe but exhilarating aura of a circus ride.

An aspect of Gregor’s search for meaning manifests itself in a wound on his back that never heals — a wound inflicted by his own angry father in “The Metamor-phosis.” He becomes attached to “father figures” throughout the novel — President Roosevelt is one, but Gregor grows increasingly disenchanted as he discovers what Hitler is doing in Europe and how little Roosevelt is doing about it. A letter from Amadeus, still in Vienna, reveals that his old friend is being forced to wear a gold star, among other indignities. And Gregor reads foreign newspaper accounts at the Library of Congress that make his skin crawl. His wound continues to weep, his disillusion grows, and his still undefined quest continues.

A fortunate coincidence — bumping into physicists Edward Teller and Leo Szilard — takes Gregor to Los Alamos, and to the final segment of the novel. His cohorts include J. Robert Oppenheimer — “Oppie,” another father figure — and the entire scientific cast of the Manhattan Project. Gregor has a sad epiphany when he discovers that the bomb will be used whether or not Germany has one. When his protests become futile, he turns inward, and finally sees his quest in great detail.

If the sole purpose of this novel were to take a famous literary character and pick up where its original author left off, then Insect Dreams works. The plot alone is a wild trip through the highs and lows of mid-20th-century history. But Estrin not only gives Gregor Samsa more well-deserved exposure, he also makes a point: that the wounded cockroach in all of us requires inner peace. Gregor’s sad, confused and earnest search for meaning is a metaphor for the serendipity-filled, sometimes ludicrous, journey through life.

Cockroachness versus humanness is a constant source of laughs in Insect Dreams. Gregor goes through life walking upright, carrying on with humans with very few incidents calling attention to his “otherness.” Everyone takes Gregor at face value. Sight gags are everywhere and effective: Visualize a cockroach, which breathes through its sides, attempting to get high on pot — a roach, in fact — without suffocating. In one instance, Gregor is a dapper bug-about-town with a snappy fedora and nice clothes. In another, he is in ecstasy crammed inside a wooden box, being smuggled into Los Alamos — cockroaches love to be touched on all sides at once. Gregor’s lone attempt at having sex is painfully funny:

Suffice it to say that it was not a happy experience… Flesh is tender, chitin hard. How to play antennae with someone who has none? Some lips are made for kissing, others definitely not… There are places where hooks are not appropriate.

Estrin includes lots of wordplay and cultural misunderstandings. Gregor’s attempts to master English and to understand American culture provide ample fodder for many humorous moments. Gregor is an all-around nice guy, and his naiveté — though funny when it collides with bizarre pop culture such as dance crazes — is also poignant, as when Gregor tries to comprehend the KKK.

Estrin chooses Gregor’s brushes with history very carefully for their significance to both the pace of the story and to Gregor’s evolving emotional and philosophical needs. At first the people he encounters help orient him as an innocent cockroach in America. For example, a notorious Prohibition cop uses Gregor in a sting operation to pin down some bootleggers (Gregor: “Cockroaches don’t sting.” Cop: “Cockroaches who want to be American do.”).

Though name-dropping is not, as a rule, a great way to move along a plot, Estrin uses it to great effect. As the story unfolds, each individual Gregor meets is more famous than the last. This technique conveys the sense that Gregor’s quest is epic, and it keeps the momentum going. From early, despair-filled conversations with philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in Vienna to contentious discussions with Oppenheimer over the fate of the Manhattan Project, Gregor slowly homes in on his purpose.

He may have lived only half his life as a cockroach, but the power of that half-life, unlike the nuclear materials he works with, doesn’t diminish Gregor over time. His years as a bug culminate instead with determination:

He seemed simultaneously pregnant and more opaque, as if he were growing, inside the chrysalis of self, another organism, with other goals, which would molt and hatch in a final metamorphosis.

Estrin does a good job of conveying Gregor’s innocent-abroad personality, both comically and impressionistically. Immersion in American culture and instructive conversations with the natives frequently, if pleasantly, overwhelm the insect’s senses. For instance, his favorite bagel shop gives him daily, almost erotic pleasure: “When he pulled open the door a full body-caressing blast of steam greeted him, feeling um-um-good on a freezing morning.” Life for Gregor is a non-stop Twister game of pop culture, philosophy and music.

Estrin, a cellist in the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra and the Vermont Philharmonic, uses music throughout Insect Dreams to demonstrate the protagonist’s progress on his journey. Gregor attends recitals and even inspires sonatas and dances, always coming away with a new wrinkle in his philosophical arguments. In Los Alamos, Gregor resorts to using music to actually express his philosophy, when it seems like no one will listen to him anymore. He invites his friends Edward Teller, Klaus Fuchs and a handful of other colleagues to a “science party,” at which Gregor performs a bizarre performance-art piece to Wagner’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and some poetry by Nietzsche. His audience leaves completely stunned.

Cockroaches usually scuttle away from the light. Gregor Samsa is always heading toward it, with ambitious and affectionate direction from Estrin. Insect Dreams is an entertaining, brainy story that should please people who like edgy, intellectual reading. It should also create an appreciation for this new, very talented writer.

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