Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, by Marc Estrin – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, by Marc Estrin.
NYC, Penguin Putnam/BlueHen Books, February 2002, hardcover $26.95 (468 [+1] pages), Kindle $13.99.
Estrin’s fantasy is not so much a sequel to The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915) as an unauthorized variation or continuation of it. It is witty and erudite, but it will never replace Kafka’s original novella.
In Kafka’s classic, Gregor Samsa is a young fabric salesman living in Prague, then a part of Austro-Hungary, who awakens one morning transformed into a giant insect. (Kafka was adamant for the rest of his life that the insect should not be specified – he refused to allow the bug to be illustrated – to enable the reader to imagine the kind of giant insect that most terrified her or her. As soon as Kafka died, the insect was specified in text and art as a giant cockroach.) Samsa is horrified, and his parents and sister are horrified. Samsa refuses to leave his bedroom, growing weaker and weaker, until he dies. His body is thrown into the trash by the Samsas’ cleaning lady.
Estrin’s novel, about five times as long as Kafka’s novella, emphasizes cockroach, cockroach, cockroach. According to him, Samsa’s death is a ruse by the family’s cleaning lady, who sells him, still alive, to a Viennese sideshow. His family, who were embarrassed by the giant bug in the bedroom, were glad to get rid of it and did not ask questions.
Amadeus Ernst Hoffnung, the proprietor of the sideshow – an eclectic collection of freaks such as a 600-pound man – sees nothing more unusual than usual in a 5’6” talking cockroach. Since Gregor is naturally shy and rather intellectual, he and Anton relax in the evenings together in friendly conversations. When Gregor wants learned books to read, Amadeus gets them for him. Gregor adds what he reads into his performance:
“His ‘act’ evolved over time. Originally billed as ‘A Visitor from the Early Carboniferous Period’ (perhaps ‘Vomfruhesteinkohlzeitbesucher’ seems less awkward in German), he gave short talks about the steaming interior marshes of the then single landmass of North America, South America, Africa, Australia, Asia, Eurasia, and Antarctica. But this soon seemed canned and phony, and Amadeus wondered if some in the audience might think he was some kind of lifelike automaton. So Gregor went on to giving advice. ‘The Advisor from the Early Carboniferous.’ People would ask questions about business or personal problems, or what books to read or (while the cinemas were still open) [the cinemas were closed in Vienna during World War I] what films to see. Once a child asked, ‘Are there really Angels, and do they bring the Christmas presents, or do parents bring them?’ Gregor assured her that no one feels really at home in an interpreted world – which must have given her something to think about. At least she didn’t cry.” (p. 14)
The War ends; Gregor’s “seminars” grow more intellectual and possibly radical; other European intellectuals of the 1920s come to see and listen to him. Spengler. Rilke. Roentgen. Wittgenstein. Gregor is invited to America. He hesitates, but Amadeus’ declining health and the rise of fascism and anti-intellectualism in Europe – is a cockroach like a Jew? Gregor is, or was Jewish before he became a cockroach — make it seem advisable to go to New York.
In New York, Gregor meets Einstein – not Albert but Izzy Einstein, who with Moe Smith was the most famous federal Prohibition agent of the early 1920s. Izzy & Moe were notorious for conducting their raids of speakeasies in disguise, and in Estin’s novel they draft Gregor into helping them. Gregor rubs shoulders with other high-profile Americans of the 1920s-1940s period such as H. V. Kaltenborn and Rexford Tugwell. Charles Ives writes a sonata about him. He is an “exhibit” at the Scopes trial, and attends the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. He is Americanized as George Samson. He becomes a member of FDR’s Brain Trust and meets such key members of the Manhattan Project as General Groves, Robert Oppenheimer, and Leo Szilard. Insect Dreams ends, after a fashion, with the question of whether using the atomic bomb on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is justified?
Insect Dreams (cover by Honi Werner) is breezy and humorous enough that it doesn’t seem pretentious. Yet it is essentially a metaphor for a novel about an early 20th-century European intellectual Jew’s coming to America and becoming involved with most of the leading intellectual questions of the 1920s to the 1940s. Gregor is the only non-human in the book, and while he stands out at the beginning due to his cockroachness, by the time he comes to America he seems to stand out as much for his Jewishness and his Czech accent; a Forrest Gump who just happens to be an insect. It is an unusual, clever, and well-written novel, but not at all a furry one.