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Book Review: Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa by Marc Estrin

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Gregor Samsa would like to think that he puts his pants on just like anybody else — three legs at a time.

But he’s inclined to “ask too many questions, dream too many dreams, and embark on too many quests.” He’s also a hobnobbing, cosmopolitan mover and shaker, a muse and a schmoozer, not only meeting and inspiring famous philosophers, artists, scientists and heads of state, but also lecturing, writing groundbreaking business books, heading up social protests and helping formulate governmental policy — not to mention inspiring a wildly popular new dance craze. Hardly the actions of your average, garden variety, standard-issue 6-foot cockroach.

And a far cry from Gregor’s first incarnation as an unwilling shut-in in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the story of the traveling salesman who “woke up one morning from unsettling dreams” and found himself “changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” In Kafka’s disturbing work about rejection and isolation, Gregor ekes out an existence, eeks out his parents and sister, and seeks solace under a sofa from a demanding world where he was “a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone,” and from the increasingly indifferent and domineering family he used to support.

Before he brokenheartedly withers and dies and is swept into the dustbin by the housecleaner, Gregor kicks and screams about being cut off from society. “Now sir, you’ll see, I’m not stubborn and I’m willing to work; traveling is a hardship, but without it I couldn’t live.” Out of the mouths of Blattela germanica.

And into the conceit of Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, as Marc Estrin taps a resurrected, will-work-for-food Gregor for a curtain call and an uncertain crawl across the pages of his audacious first novel, an uneven work of scattershot intensity and imagination. Brimming with ruminations and observations and delectable bites of backstage history, Insect Dreams, while providing a wide-ranging social, cultural and political discourse on much of the first half of the 20th century, constitutes not so much a running commentary as a meandering one, alternately astute and heavy-handed, dryly amusing and earnest to the utmost.

Consisting more of episodic eruptions than epic arcs, Insect Dreams, with its stab at the kaleidoscopic and accumulative force of interactive history wherein truth’s no stranger to fiction, strains to be consistently 3-D — Dos Passos, Doctorow and DeLillo — but is too often out of its depth. Think a less cuddly Jiminy Cricket crossed with Forrest Gump. Think Horatio Alger in a rags-to-roaches success story. Or, since the book is often more Capra-esque than Kafkaesque, think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Dressed Like a Giant Cockroach.

And think that, though an admirable and ambitious attempt, Insect Dreams has a few bugs in it.

As the book begins, being a big, alive-after-all bug, as delivered up by Metamorphosis’ opportunistic housekeeper, is cause enough for entry into a Prague circus. Not wanting to be just another sideshow attraction, the proud Gregor decides to present educational lectures and seminars, talking about Spengler, Einstein, Rilke or Mann at the drop of a rolled-up newspaper.

Hugely popular, Gregor also gets visitors, having a tea and tete-a-tete with Wittgenstein and getting encouraging words from Austrian writer Robert Musil. Telling Gregor that he is “uniquely equipped to discover and model a new man for a new society,” Musil maintains further that the big cockroach of a man is “in a position to lead us back to a larval state from which we may rechart our course. You are the larval man of possibility.”

Not that becoming a “possibilitarian” is taken to heart or is enough to re-chart Gregor to a more receptive and hospitable land of opportunity, America. That takes a more contrived and convoluted reason involving a contest of a Charleston-like, all-the-rage dance sensation, the “Gregor” (sponsored by Raid ant and roach killer!), wherein Gregor wins some money, a trip to New York and a sink-or-swim toss into the deep end.

But “if Gregor was given to disturbing dreams, he was also given to revelation,” extremes mirrored in his first job as an elevator operator (“Up and down, up and down. Gregor’s elevator paced out the sine wave of events, of men’s fortunes, of human aspiration”) and then reflected in the turn of events as he descends into the depths of homelessness and ascends to success in business, writing an influential book on risk management.

Gregor immerses himself in American culture, from baseball to the music of his new friend Charles Ives — peanuts and popcorn and polytonal dissonance, anyone? An impressionable and newly politicized Gregor gets so involved in such social causes as women’s rights, the Scopes trial and the Sacco and Vanzetti case that, “He was sick — sick with The Sickness Unto Life.”

Sounds pretty impossibilitarianist. So much for his “imagined task of helping humanize humanity.”

As reward for Gregor’s invaluable assistance to the Roosevelt campaign, the Zelig-like social butterfly turned grandstanding gadfly is appointed Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in charge of Entomological Affairs and moves into the White House, where he witnesses FDR’s evolution from Depression through wartime, and goes from admirer to adversary.

Some concern about FDR’s sometime cowardice and vulnerability to political pressure, about the “militarization of his thought” extends to “the general mood of the white-sheeted, zoot-suit burning electorate.”

On another occasion, the great roach scholar, disillusion having become indictment and invective, grouses in his broken English that “Many American histories make open to fascism: our City on a Hill, our ‘real’ Americans, our independence from the rest of the world — everywhere carry-over of force and violence from the pioneering day – – all this makes for some explosion.”

Speaking of which: next stop, Los Alamos — the making of the atomic bomb, some much-needed suspense and surprise, and a time of decision and determination for Gregor, who is there to oversee health and safety matters. As Estrin describes, Gregor “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.”

And how. As Gregor, noting how “Atomic Energy brings out peculiar things in people,” befriends Oppenheimer, Teller, Feynman and others in the Manhattan Project, he also examines the peculiar changes going on within himself as he wrestles with his role in bringing about a “new world of dangers.”

Which should be enough justifiable anguish and naval-gazing without Estrin’s philosophic overreach exceeding his grasping at straws in his call for a “revolution in our instinctual selves.”

The over-the-top, pull-out-all-stops allusions to messianic martyrdom and the poetic streams of self-consciousness unconvincingly peddle and backpedal to point up Gregor’s suddenly redemptive, meta-roach qualities: “For was not Gregor’s extreme otherness a spirit connection to the electrocuted Italians? Or the abandoned Jews, the Japanese in camps, and those soon to be incinerated, indeed to the clockmaker and all those ‘others’ lynched and burned by hooded mobs – – were Gregor and they not intimately bound?”

If only Estrin were not so bound to the big picture that he let some credibility-sapping lapses and anachronisms slide through. Maybe a book about a big walking, talking cockroach shouldn’t have to bear the scrutiny, but how exactly does a “bohemian roach-about-town,” who neither has nor needs clothes or possessions during Gregor’s homeless period, abruptly sneak into a concert disguised with an hitherto-unmentioned overcoat and flute case? A mention of Jung’s theory of individuation is made while it’s still an unpublished works-in-progress. And while Richard Feynman no doubt frequented a strip joint or two, he would have been hard-pressed to find a topless bar in the 1940s.

Furthermore, mentions of “brownie points,” “waspy” (of the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant variety) and “the child within” are among the peppered-throughout words or phrases used before they were actually coined or in common usage.

Insect Dreams gets brownie points for effort. It probably won’t appeal to the child within, but if you have a philosophy student or an American Studies professor lurking about in there somewhere, they’ll do. Waspy or not.


Gregor arrived at the back door of Town Hall at 7:25, walked right by two ushers finishing up their Chesterfields, and found his curtained place at the back of the orchestra. Not fourth row, center, but it would do. For now, the soft darkness …

If Gregor was given to disturbing dreams, he was also given to revelation. The smell and feel of his velour shroud brought back memories of Prague, of the plush seats of its theaters and concert halls. And earlier, still. He treasured the feel of the dark red couch on which he would lie as a boy and young man, listening to Grete practice. Bach. The Chaconne. His fan of memory opened out, even in this chink behind the curtain, ready for the imprint of some unanticipated truth.

Theater and music performances had always been supreme events for him, jewels on the path of the ordinary, moments of comprehension on the common course of imprecision, shoddiness, and unclarity he normally abandoned to moronic harangue. As in ancient Greece there were hidden points that led down to the underworld, so were his history of performances attended — extraordinary trips to worlds from which dreams arose, to events that reached him like echoes heard from the darkness a past life. From velour, the deep well of the past — but also a call to unfolding. Strong attending meant laying hands, now claws, on the future. Eleventh half landing, and twelfth. He stood outside IVES AND MYRICK, stood there, listening.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch