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Book Review: The Life of Insects

Disturbing and disorientinginsects

This is an amazing and devious little book that’s either so macro it’s micro, or vice versa. In author Viktor Pelvin’s hands, the book is structured as a series of loosely connected chapters that follow a variety of characters around a sea side resort town that’s falling slowly into disrepair. The catch is that the characters are either anthropomorphic insects or, conversely and perversely, insectomorphic humans.

Either way, reading it was a disorienting as the two worlds blend into one that is dark and filled with a singular and crippling kind of hopelessness as the characters are drawn helplessly, inexorably along to their biologic, social and emotional destinies. Are we all mosquitoes seeking others from which to suck bloody sustenance before being squashed by a careless hand? Are we all plodding beetles doomed to roll our giant balls of dung proudly and unquestioningly in front of us for the duration of our short lives? Or are we worker ants driven to work and breed and die to protect the next generation of worker ants. More likely, we’re a little bit of all those and more. It’s all very dark and doomed, and I loved it.

The chapter on the little bugs — caterpillars? beetles? — inside joints of marijuana was one of the most visceral reading experiences I’ve had in quite some time, leaving me a little unsteady afterward.

I always worry that the cultural markers in translated books will be mostly lost on readers, like me, who can’t read it in the original language. In this book, it may not matter. While I’m sure much of the fin de siècle sense of Russian history and the artifacts scattered through the resort were deeply meaningful to those who know Russia better, the existential messages were larger and deeper and more timeless than any culturally specific references.

One of my favorite lines: “It wasn’t his swollen belly—that transformation, perfectly normal for mosquitoes, didn’t warrant any special attention; it was the face, which was the same but seemed to be stuffed full of something, with a heaviness reminiscent not so much of a goose stuffed with apples as an apple stuffed with a goose.”

It’s just the right kind of weird and depressing, and I highly recommend it.