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It's easy, particularly in the corporate world, to view people as animals: the gossiping hyena clerk, the doggedly faithful second in command, or the beautiful peacock strutting and showing off his newest suit. However, how often do you view your friends or coworkers as insects?

In The Life of Insects by Russian writer Victor Pelevin (translated by Andrew Bromfield) the characters metamorphose from human to insect and back from sentence to sentence, sometimes pausing in a human-insect combination to emphasize the absurdities of life. It's a funny, satirical trip through post Communist Russia, seen through the eyes of characters that aren't quite stereotypes, but could be in different hands: the mother ant fighting to get fresh food from nearly empty markets; the pot-smoking liberals trying to hide their stash from the secret police; the permanently unemployed, philosophical moth, endlessly debating whether to fly into the light or not.

This book has generally been reviewed as "literature," perhaps because it's translated from the Russian. However, because of the book's use of metamorphoses, it makes sense to also view it as speculative fiction. Maybe the metamorphosis of the characters is laden with metaphorical meaning, but it actually happens as well. Rather suddenly, in fact. (One of the characters is walking along, smoking a cigarette, looking at the distant lights. Then he begins loping along. "After a few steps, he was caught in a current of air and carried up through the treetops.") In addition, the lessons in the book aren't grim or heavy handed. They're given tongue-in-cheek, with humor and absurdity, not crushing you, but encouraging you to keep trying.

The book opens with a description of a crumbling resort "which seemed to have turned its back to the sea at the bidding of some crazed fairy-tale conjurer." In this setting of decay you meet the main trio of the book, an American businessman named Sam Sacker, with his two Russian counterparts, Arnold and Arthur. After they agree about finding ways to make easy money in the new Russia, they abruptly transform into mosquitoes. Sam, as the American (and therefore the most modern and technologically advanced of the three) becomes an admirable agile brown mosquito, with wings "swept back like a jet plane's," while his companions take on "that miserable hue of gray familiar from prerevolutionary village huts, a color that in its time had reduced many a Russian poet to tears."

The trio flies off, Sam leading the way, to gather a few impressions and to get a general feel for the place. The book is similarly impressionistic: it tries to give an overview of the country, like a bus tour. It doesn't stop in any one place for more than a brief time, just long enough for its riders to snap some pictures and sample the strange foreign cooking; then, it's back on the bus. Each character has his or her own story, which is only loosely tied in with the stories of the other characters. There's no over-arching plot. This book has much more in common with Gulliver's Travels than with the latest John Grisham novel.

For example, the first chapter ends with the three businessmen on the beach, resting at a kiosk, looking at the ocean, while a father and son walk by. The second chapter starts with the father and son commenting on the strange trio ("Drunks," the father calls them, while spitting on the road.) Then a piece of caked dung appears in the father's hands. He tosses it to the boy, and for a while, everything seems clear, or so the boy says.

Things do get clearer after what seems like an abrupt departure from reality: the father is a dung beetle, while the son is changing from nymph to beetle. His father can't explain this fundamental mystery, and advises his son that he'll just have to experience it. The son will also have to roll the ball of dung in front of him for a while before he'll understand the nature of it, the importance of it, how the whole world is actually this ball of dung. After a while, you get the impression that the author is making a sly comment about all of Communism being a ball of dung, though he never comes out and directly says it.

This is one of the joys of this book. It isn't too overt and it isn't too subtle. The comments about the rotten core of Communism are artfully done, with plausible deniability should the regime change again. Even if you aren't a Russian literary scholar, you can still get the jokes. I may not understand everything being lampooned in the nonsensical literary criticism that Marina, the ant, reads aloud. However, I can still understand its excessive nature and enjoy the author's insidious interpretations.

My favorite comment on Communism comes from another character, Mitya, a moth, who metamorphoses into a firefly as well as a human. It happens while he's dreaming:

. . . .soon he saw ahead of him a large tree stump from some southern tree which he didn't recognize. . . .The entire clearing in front of it was covered with a colorful shifting carpet of insects. They were gazing spellbound at the stump, which emitted waves of charismatic energy that transformed it into the sole and incontrovertible source of meaning and light in the universe. . . .He couldn't see what was happening in the very center of the stump, and this induces a sense of dark mystery. . . .Mitya rose high into the air until the stump was directly below him. . . .In the center of the stump was a puddle, with several rotten twigs floating in it. More precisely, this wasn't even the center itself: the stump was so rotten there was nothing left of it but bark, and immediately behind it was a pit of decay, filled with foul water.

One of the reasons I really like this passage is because of the time it takes to get to its conclusion. The images and metaphors are layered, like drops of water building into a wave that suddenly soaks you with the realization that this isn't just an ordinary dream. There's more going on. Then the wave rushes past you, going down the shore. You're still allowed to make your own decisions, form your own opinions, see the world either as a bug or a human.

However, not all the commentary is about Communism. Some of it is about life itself. There's a chapter called "Paradise" with a lovely story about Seryozha, the cicada. The characters in this chapter don't get mentioned anywhere else. It's a self-contained, circular and poetic story. The story starts just after Seryozha is born, when he bites his way into the earth, realizing that very few of his kind make it back out again to hatch completely. He starts to work in an office, and gets stuck in a rut, metamorphosing into a cockroach. When, to his horror, he realizes what he's become, he sheds his old life, his old skin, and escapes to that magical land, America. At this point, you might think that this is yet another sort of metaphor about Communism, possibly resonating with the phrase, "Worker's Paradise." However, the same things happen to Seryozha in America: he gets stuck in a rut and turns into a cockroach again. Finally he leaves his money and credit cards behind (handing them to what might be the ball of dung) so he can dig his way to the surface and become a cicada. He's at the end of his life, going to die soon, but he's in paradise, ". . .singing of the fact that life had passed in vain, and that it could only pass in vain, and there was no point in weeping over it."

This practical (realistic?) view of life is echoed in the story-arc. At the end of the book, the only characters whose stories are resolved are the ones who've died. For everyone else, their stories, and their lives, go on. Yet, at the same time, you get the feeling of a circle, that everything has come back to the start. Or maybe more like a circular path up a cone. It's still a circle, even if the starting and ending place aren't exactly the same.

I don't want to make it sound like the book ends on a hopeless note. It doesn't. The ball of dung you push before you isn't a Sisyphus-like rock. It's just a way of helping you get from one place to the next. And sometimes we all need help like that, a push out of the ordinary, a bug's point of view, to see a stump for what it is, or a ball of dung for that matter. I recommend this book, not for its plot, but for its story, the story of looking at the alien in all of us.

 

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Leah R. Cutter has done most of the typical writer-type jobs: taught English in Taiwan, worked on an archaeological dig in England, tended bar in Thailand, and so on. Now she works as a technical writer in Arizona. She has a couple of short stories published, and more in the works.



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