The world was his Roach Motel

A raid on Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'

I will never kill another cockroach. Neither will anyone who reads Marc Estrin's brilliant debut novel about Gregor Samsa. And that's just the beginning of this book's audacious intentions.

Jumping off from Franz Kafka's famous novella, "Insect Dreams" describes an even stranger metamorphosis. In the original, poor Gregor, a salesman in Prague, found himself transformed one day into an enormous bug. In Estrin's continuation, that bug mutates into the savior of humanity.

The story opens as the fires of World War I begin licking the timbers of European despair. Anna Marie and three ex-boarders from the Samsa household deliver the carcass of a man-sized roach to a freak show in Vienna. Remarkably, he's still alive, though an apple protrudes from a wound in his back. In the weeks that follow, Gregor recovers: "He was a bit awkward, somewhat tentative in his gait, but vertically, he could function well at cocktail parties, or at meetings, seated in a chair."

Tiring quickly of the standard freak-show venue, Gregor begins giving advice - "The Advisor from the Early Carboniferous" - and then naturally moves into book reviewing and conducting seminars on issues of the day. In the smoldering embers of the war, Vienna is a hotbed of conversation about the meaning of such devastation, the nature of man, and the fate of civilization. One of the renowned participants in his seminar is the German writer Robert Musil, who sees in "Herr Cockroach" a being of incomplete metamorphosis who can "lead us back to a larval state from which we may rechart our course."

For Gregor, this is a heavy burden to consider. For us, of course, it's absurd to consider, but such is Estrin's genius that we're quickly caught up in the compelling quest of a human cockroach to raise mankind above its destructive instincts.

Unbeknownst to Gregor, he becomes the inspiration for a dance craze in America - something like the Charleston, but with three dancers (six legs). When adoring fans send him a ticket to the States, he can't imagine leaving his job and his freaky friends. But Wittgenstein, on a field trip with his grade-school students, advises him to flee the rising prejudice in Europe.

It's not easy for a six-foot cockroach to start over in a strange place, particularly with a German accent, but he gets a job as an elevator operator in a fancy New York hotel where he rubs elbows (or legs) with America's rich and famous. "A cockroach in New York City," the narrator exclaims, "a home as welcoming as Rome to the Pope!"

Soon, he's dating Alice Paul, founder of the National Women's Party, fresh from her success passing the 19th Amendment. Their romance ends painfully, as you can imagine, but he learns much from her courageous faith in equality. And she introduces him to Charles Ives, the composer, who finds in Gregor the inspiration to keep writing his radical symphonies of the discordant forces gripping the world.

Disregard the legal disclaimer about "any resemblance to actual persons living or dead" being "entirely coincidental." A note at the end lists 60 biographies and histories the author consulted to assemble this massive tour of science, culture, and politics. Halfway through, after learning about everything from X-rays to risk management, I began to wonder, Is there anything Estrin doesn't know? 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. In the most natural ways, Estrin manages to insinuate Gregor into the major developments of the first half of the 20th century. (Roaches can fit into the tiniest places, you know.)

Gregor scurries from the Scopes trial to Los Alamos, from the Japanese internment camps to the White House. Everywhere, he's omnivorously attentive, his antennae so sensitive to the pheromones of beauty and cruelty passing around him. He's indefatigably childlike, ever hopeful, but constantly baffled by gross inequities and profoundly concerned about mankind's tendency toward fear and avarice. And he's always ready to stand (upright, if necessary) as an example of gentleness and compassion, but he can't help wondering: "Was he - doubly inhuman - up to his imagined task of helping humanize humanity?" (Eleanor Roosevelt counsels him, in a moment of discouragement, to be himself, "to bring the blessings of genuine roachness to the people around him.")

As Gregor and history fly toward the cataclysmic conclusion of World War II, Christ images swarm through the narrative. The testimonies of cruelty mount, his heroes fail him, and humanity seems drawn toward apocalypse. While millions go up in smoke in Europe, cynical intellectuals retreat into cocoons of despair, and, in the darkest moments, Gregor weeps, but he refuses to give up.

Ultimately, "Insect Dreams" is a compilation of our dreams. It's the kind of book from which one wakes clutching surreal scenes, desperate to tell others, delighted and baffled and horrified. Of course, Gregor makes a particularly peculiar savior; what do we need the moral example of a frail insect for - so despised and dejected of men? But stranger things have happened.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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