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Spiders, ants, and grasshoppers — oh my
A round-up of this summer’s interesting insect tales
BY RICCO VILLANUEVA SIASOCO

Kafka fanatics, take heed: there’s a revival going on. Admirers of The Metamorphosis — Kafka’s tale of a young man who wakes up as a life-size cockroach — will note a spate of recent novels and short-story collections that focus on insects, giving life to human characters who are touched, obsessed, and yes, transformed by red ants, butterflies, and creaky old grasshoppers. We’ve even seen a tale of a plastic surgeon who preys on his victims much like a genus of tropical spiders. Good news for nature lovers, bad news for beach readers seeking to escape the pesky, real-life bugs of summer.

Red Ant House: Stories, by Ann Cummins (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin, 2003; $12). There’s a telling moment in Ann Cummins’s story "Blue Fly" when a young Native American brother and sister stand in the doorway of their hut, silently amazed, watching their older sibling shoo flies: "‘Who,’ she was saying — then swish, she slapped the table, and splat, a fly fell — ‘invited you?’" The quirky characters that populate Cummins’s debut collection are forever battling insects — often as a metaphor for their inner lives.

In Cummins’s stories, blue flies, termites, annoying gnats, and cockroaches often remind us of her characters’ frailty and potential for loss. In the wonderfully jangly story "Crazy Yellow," the enormity of a nine-year-old’s attempt to deal with his mother’s cancer diagnosis is eased by a simple metaphor. "The new lumps were no larger than ants, Lynn had told him today. Smaller than the first time. Just little brown sugar ants you could smash between your fingers."

The title story, "Red Ant House," selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2002, again deposits readers in the mind of a young adolescent — this time a hardened yet vulnerable girl named Leigh who is acutely aware of the secrets in adult life. As Cummins says, "If she were an insect, she might be a fire ant burning brightly in dark places." The image of ant hills, of places where everything is not visible to the human eye, appeals to the author enormously: "It suggests an intricate network of relationships, all hidden underground." These are fine, funky stories by a young writer duly praised by heavyweights Dave Eggers and John Barth.

Mygale, by Thierry Jonquet, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (City Lights Publishers, 2003; $11.95). What’s a mygale, you ask, and what’s it got to do with this book? In this disturbing novel, the mygale (pronounced MIG-uh-lee: technically, a genus of large tropical spiders) is the nickname given to plastic surgeon Richard Lafargue, a treacherous, web-spinning man. French novelist Thierry Jonquet’s first book published in the US, Mygale has a heart as dark as its main character. Be warned: this is not fiction for the faint of heart.

If you’ve ever seen moody noir films like Touch of Evil or Strangers on a Train, you’ll recognize the novel’s mise-en-scène: several mistrustful characters who embody the paranoia of modern society (Jonquet himself is an exponent of the hardboiled style of French noir inflected by post–May 1968 politics and social critique), melodramatic plots involving dirty crimes such as extortion and murder, and the introduction of the now-classic femme fatale.

What’s fascinating about Mygale is that the femme fatale, Eve, does not act out until the very end, and when she does, she’s torn between avenging wrongs and moving toward a more hopeful existence. In other words, she’s a femme fatale with a conscience. At one point in the story, Eve travels to the ocean, cupping the wind outside her car window with her hand. Lafargue — the spider of the book’s title — is behind the steering wheel. "He suggested she stop, for fear that insects or flying gravel might hurt her." It’s a casual statement that might just as well be directed at the unprepared reader.

Spanish dynamo filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who garnered a much-deserved Oscar this year, has optioned Jonquet’s book for a feature film. Mygale is an intricate, fast-paced tale in the Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe (or modern counterparts Dennis Cooper and Darcey Steinke) in which the innocence of victims is questioned and the shady perpetrators — in classic noir fashion — are given sympathetic reasons for their crimes. As events unfold (I’m not ruining it by telling you there’s a gun in the end, and someone ends up using it), we begin to wonder: did these victims deserve their fate? Who’s really the spider and who is the helpless prey?

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies: Stories, by John Murray (Harper Collins, 2003; $24.95). Nabokov, of course, was the butterfly aficionado. He often wrote of his fascination with the delicate winged creatures, and his photograph (with butterfly nets and all) graced national magazines like Life. In his debut collection of short stories, John Murray creates a character who might rival the butterfly love of the great Russian master of 20th-century prose.

In the collection’s title story, "A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies," our narrator is an older doctor whose marriage to a self-assured Indian neurosurgeon is threatened by his unwillingness to father children. His emotional distance contrasts with his devotion to the colorful flying creatures of his youth: "I spent my childhood ordering my collection of butterflies. Family, genus, species. I was devoted to the act of putting the world into ranked order."

What we eventually come to understand, however, is that our unnamed narrator is also prone to fits of imagination: "I’m a daydreamer — a worrying quality in a surgeon." These two elements, the daydreamer and the cataloguer, imbue him with butterfly-like appeal. Mixing fascinating insect science (Ornithoptera victoriae victoriae is one of Murray’s lyrical selections) with a sure sense of character and voice, these wonderful stories reveal an articulate, beguiling new writer.

The Grasshopper King, by Jordan Ellenberg (Coffee House Press, 2003; $14). This first novel by Jordan Ellenberg, the "Do the Math" columnist for Slate, is a witty send-up of campus politics at a dying Western community college. The Grasshopper King of the title is reclusive Professor Higgs, who, after dozens of years of scholarship and fame, abruptly refuses to utter another word. To anyone. Including his wife. At the college’s expense. For years.

In the strange object-ridden basement of Higgs’s palatial home on the edge of Chandler State campus, a graduate student named Samuel Grapearbor sits with Higgs through a long, hot summer. His graduate work involves tape-recording the professor’s silence — just in case his revered boss suddenly decides to utter words of wisdom.

The Grasshopper King is a breezy discovery for readers. This is a well-crafted novel with realistic characters, and, most important, a wild satire of campus politics. The humor is at times outrageous (Grapearbor’s translation of an obscure fictional magnum opus titled Little Bug, Little Bug delights, while his girlfriend’s arcane research on the all-important "stocking fetish in British painting" depresses) and the hilarious finale is something out of a Preston Sturges screwball comedy. In this madcap novel, the grasshopper-like characters croak, leap, and butt heads — ostensibly over academic fortune, but really in an effort to understand the meaning of love.

Ricco Villanueva Siasoco can be reached at mail@riccosiasoco.com


Issue Date: May 23, 2003
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