The Austin Chronicle

A Botched Metamorphosis

By Roger Gathman, February 22, 2002, Books

Marc Estrin had the idea (which some kind friend should have talked him out of) that he could bootstrap his novel Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa (BlueHen Books, $26.95) onto Kafka's Gregor Samsa, the man who, after a night filled with anxious dreams, woke up to find himself transformed into a cockroach in The Metamorphosis. Estrin ignores the end of Kafka's tale, in which our cockroach is clearly defunct, and revives Gregor, transplanting it to a Viennese freak show. We quickly catch on: Estrin's Samsa owes more to Roger Rabbit than to his onlie begetter. Samsa, it turns out, is a reading, referencing roach, who is always being dressed up in human clothes. Is this 'toon-land or what? Furthermore, this roach is a high-minded creature, unlike the salesman of Kafka's imagination (who was more likely to be reading Karl May than Thomas Mann on his interminable jaunts to the hinterlands), so Gregor is soon conversing with Wittgenstein and Robert Musil. Since there is only so much traction in Viennese intellectual history, at least for the non-specialist reader, Estrin contrives to have Samsa fly to the U.S. The giant vermin becomes an intimate of the atom bomb scientists. Right. Sure. Estrin has a much better knowledge of entomological terms than Kafka did. He just doesn't know anything about art. This novel reminds me of that old advertising slogan which used to be slapped on famous brands to keep them from being copycatted: Accept no substitutes.

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