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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Insect Dreams

Marc Estrin

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To purchase Insect Dreams

Title: Insect Dreams
Author: Marc Estrin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 464 pages
Availability: Insect Dreams - US
Insect Dreams - UK
Insect Dreams - Canada
  • The Half Life of Gregor Samsa
  • Original working title: Gregor Samsa: A Life

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining, often clever, and a fun idea -- but tries to do too much with it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A+ 14/2/2002 Ron Charles
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/3/2002 Ken Tucker
TLS A 15/3/2002 Lesley Chamberlain
The Washington Post B- 3/2/2002 Alex Abramovich
Note: The Washington Post reviewer is under the impression that the first name of the author of this book is "Mark". This is apparently not correct.

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's only a matter of time before this new cult classic inspires a companion collection of footnotes and commentary. Indeed, if Insect Dreams weren't so perpetually funny, its philosophical ruminations and its encyclopedia of cameo appearances would be downright intimidating." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "(A) sort of Ragtime for roaches. (...) This literary bugatelle could easily have become excruciatingly cute (.....) But as Insect Dreams proceeds, it takes on its own logic." - Ken Tucker, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Estrin's amusing and deeply sympathetic narrative weaves between the privileges of being an insect and the genius of being human. Through his encounters with a stream of historical figures burdened with crucial decisions, Gregor defines his transcendant mission: to save the world from itself. (...) There is a brief epilogue incorporating Rilke and Emily Dickinson which is probably a mistake." - Lesley Chamberlain, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Estrin is so intent on driving home a basic set of aesthetic and political points that, had he substituted Miss Lonelyhearts for Gregor Samsa, he would have ended up with much the same book. That said, Insect Dreams has a great deal going for it: Estrin may be more concerned with issue and idea than image and act, but he's passionate in his beliefs, and has a gift for translating those passions to the page. The question is whether that gift is best served by fiction (.....) (A) strange, frustrating, and only occasionally fulfilling debut." - Alex Abramovich, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his first novel Marc Estrin makes a daring move: he co-opts a famous literary character and makes him his own. The protagonist of Insect Dreams is none other than the 20th century's most famous insect-man, Franz Kafka's metamorphosed Gregor Samsa. Gregor, as readers may recall, woke up one day to find that he had turned into a man-sized cockroach. Kafka's Samsa did not fare that well, but Estrin offers an alternative version of events at the beginning of his novel. Estrin suggests that Samsa escaped his Kafkaesque fate and was instead brought to a Viennese freak show, where he became, for a time, a popular exhibit -- before moving on to bigger things
       In best Forrest Gump fashion Estrin makes the insect-man a participant in several of the 20th century's significant events (and a witness to many more). Samsa becomes a witness (or rather: an exhibit) at the Scopes trial, for example, and he winds up working on the Manhattan project in Los Alamos.
       Estrin decides that his extraordinary figure must meet many of the extraordinary figures of his times. It is, admittedly, part of the fun of the novel -- but ultimately also its greatest weakness. The author's obsession with celebrity to make his points greatly diminishes his otherwise often impressive achievement.
       Who does Gregor meet ? Who doesn't he meet, more like it. The first convergences of fact and fiction aren't too bad. There's Robert Musil (whose Törless Samsa calls "one of my crucial books"), and then Wilhelm Roentgen -- called in to show that Samsa is truly a cockroach through and through. The meeting with Ludwig Wittgenstein, just going through his teacher-phase, is already more contrived. Charles Ives -- encountered once Samsa is already in America -- looks like a return to something more promising, but then the insect-man goes off to work for F.D.R. (and finds quarters in the White House) and it plunges downhill from there. Eventually the science folk crop up -- first Edward Teller and Leo Szillard, and then Einstein himself -- and Samsa eventually gets sent off to help out in Los Alamos (where he deals with Oppenheimer and Feynman and all the rest) and only the big boom of the first atomic test manages to bring things to a screeching halt.
       Fortunately, there are only four stations for Samsa: Vienna, New York, Washington D.C., and Los Alamos. Still, in each insect-man Samsa is, peripherally at least (and sometimes quite directly), involved in the making of history. It gets to be a bit much -- and in the end is far too much.
       The shame of it is, that aside from the over-the-top historical involvement, Estrin has the makings of an excellent novel here. He writes well, most of the time. The book is conversation-heavy, but the dialogue is good and quite clever. Many of the descriptions and observations, too, are nicely done. Occasionally, the philosophizing gets to be a bit much, as the book teeters towards the ponderous, but Estrin usually manages to pull it back (except for in the rather sorry finale, a long after the fact afterword).
       Estrin's characters -- commoners and celebrities alike -- too are well presented. Gregor Samsa, in particular, is a generally impressive and sympathetic character.
       Taking such a well-known literary figure and trying to use him for one's own literary ends is, of course, a dangerous ambition, but Estrin pulls it off quite well. A bit too much is made of Samsa's seeping, unhealing wound (from the apple thrown at him by his father), and too little of his arthropodous appearance (it is noticed when it Estrin needs to make some point with it, but most of the time people seem completely oblivious to Samsa's otherness).
       Occasionally Estrin gets over-explicit, as when he has Samsa acknowledge:

Jews are cockroaches, in a way. They must become hard on the outside from so much kicking around. But they are soft on the inside.
       Mercifully, there is relatively little of this stuff.
       When he leaves Samsa be "the sum of his confusions", without trying to explain every last thing, the novel works much better. And for many stretches it does work quite well. But Estrin goes on far too long, cramming far too much in: a more focussed, less obviously ambitious work could easily have been far more impressive -- and certainly far weightier: this, in trying so hard, deflates itself.
       There are many impressive parts to this work, but over its length the weaknesses stand out all the more starkly. There are historical incongruities: Samsa "thought of George Orwell. 1984 was forty-five years away" -- but Orwell only published his 1984 thirty-five years before the infamous date (in 1949), not nearly a decade earlier when Samsa is said to be thinking of it. There are cultural slips: Estrin has Samsa eagerly say: "Mein Gott, Wienerschnitzel ! Oh, we must have", at a baseball game when the hot dog vendor comes around. No matter how different his bug-eyes are, it would be hard for anyone to confuse a flat, breaded veal cutlet (a Wienerschnitzel) with a frankfurter.
       The writing, too, goes astray on occasion. "Gregor and Wittgenstein exchanged complex glances", for example (that is just really bad writing). Or, when Gregor becomes a lift-boy in New York, riding up and down on the elevator, Estrin writes: "Gregor's elevator paced out the sine wave of events, of men's fortunes, of human aspirations." This is just wrong for so many reasons. Sine waves do not pace -- and neither do elevators. Events, fortunes, and human aspirations also rarely pace -- or move in sine waves. Maybe they fluctuate up and down, elevator-like -- but sine waves have no place in trying to describe this.
       (Also: in our opinion the original title -- Gregor Samsa: A Life -- was the far better one. Insect Dreams don't really have much to do with the novel, and while the sub-title, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, is pseudo-clever wordplay on Samsa's eventual career move as well as the fact that his other "half-life" was described in Kafka's novel it misses the mark since the meaning of "half-life" is a different one that what is apparently meant to be meant here. (If the half-life of X is say ten years, then after the first ten year period one-half of X will be left, after the second ten year period (after a total of twenty years) one-quarter of X will be left, and so on. This is not what happens to Gregor.))

       Insect Dreams is a reasonably entertaining book. The action moves fairly quickly, there are adventures galore, some of them quite clever. The writing is good enough, for the most part -- with some inspired pieces. It's just a shame so much is lost in trying to make it a work of much greater import than Estrin is capable of making it. More focus on Gregor as cockroach among humans (and less of Gregor and the celebrities) would have made for a far finer read. Cautiously recommended.

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Insect Dreams: Reviews: Marc Estrin: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Marc Estrin is an American author.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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