Thursday, June 17, 2010

Insect Dreams

The Half Life of Gregor Samsa

It turns out the protagonist of Kafka's Metamorphosis didn't die after all. He joined a freak show in Vienna where, as "the human roach," he reads from Rilke and holds seminars on Spengler. Such is his notoriety that Wittgenstein and novelist Robert Musil pay him a visit, and in America he inspires a dance craze.

In New York he meets composer Charles Ives, and provides the inspiration for the "Insect Sonata," which is performed on the piano with the use of a brick and a couple of two-by-fours. Gregor goes to work at Ives's insurance firm, where he specializes in risk management and develops a formula to gauge the probability of a person being kidnapped. The formula incorporates an Index of Suffering -- "an original contribution of Gregor's, now in standard use among economists."

                    (unemployment rate in percent)(inflation in percent)
        S =  ----------------------------------------------------------------------
                 1 - (probabability of situation continuing another month)

He moves to Washington DC and takes up residence in a White House broom closet, working for the Dept. of Agriculture as an expert on entomological matters. The US is mired in the Great Depression, and Gregor, while studying grasshopper behaviour, discovers "smelltrons" and invents the Elektroantennograph and the Heuschreckekitzelapparat.

When war breaks out he meets Einstein and delivers his famous letter to FDR, then is reassigned to Los Alamos as a risk management consultant. He pals around with Feynman and Oppenheimer, and suggests the principle for the device used to trigger the atomic bomb.

By then Gregor's despair has deepened to an intolerable level; there's the wound in his back, FDR's dithering over the war, and the decision to continue the Manhattan Project even after Germany had abandoned its own efforts at an atomic bomb.

The book's humour, erudition, historical characters, and WW2 setting reminded me very much of Cryptonomicon and Gravity's Rainbow, but at 464 pages it is much shorter and not as convoluted. Interestingly, all three novels end explosively.

Viva la cucaracha!