Though the market for fiction that makes political commentary has seen better days, the nonfiction best-seller lists are packed with passionate missives from liberals and conservatives alike. Even though the latter generally preaches to the choir and fiction may do better at breaching the ideological divide, people seem to want their politics and their fiction in separate servings. Heaven help the novelist who thinks she can get in the ring with Michael Moore and Ann Coulter. You might as well book Ralph Nader on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Marc Estrin has either not taken notice of this trend, or simply doesn’t care. Perhaps he just enjoys the challenge of trying to make the social novel work. In his second novel, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Estrin certainly goes for the political gusto: A boy named Arnold Hitler (yes, the name and its implications for the hapless boy are explored) stands, literally, between JFK and the second gunman; he chats with Noam Chomsky; he befriends Leonard Bernsteinâ€”Marc Estrin, Liberal Novelist.
While that premise might induce eye-rolling, Estrin’s first novel Insect Dreams: the Half Life of Gregor Samsa (recently re-released by Unbridled Books), starts from a much more promising seed: Gregor Samsa did not die near the end of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis but instead lives, as a beetle, with a side-show of human oddities. He passes his days reading extensively and then giving lectures on Spengler and Einstein.
From that start, a series of adventures leads Samsa into America and the midst of FDR’s administration, where he becomes an “Entomological Consultant,” lives in the White House kitchen, and gets motherly attention from Eleanor.
An interesting idea, but does the book succeed as a whole? As a device for exploring the politics of the time, Estrin’s premise works well. The world seen through the eyes of a giant talking roach is very different than the one revealed through the eyes of a person. Other reviews, rightly or wrongly, have drawn comparisons to Forrest Gump, claiming that Estrin sets a surreal tone from the start by placing Samsa front and center and thereby allows us to relax our disbelief when he goes from inventing risk management to hobnobbing with FDR to Los Alamos. Whether or not this is why we can suspend our disbelief, suspend it we do.
Wisely, Estrin does not try to emulate Kafka’s prose; he captures Samsa’s personality from Kafka’s story and thankfully leaves it at that. One could complain about Samsa’s largely unchanged liberalism throughout: why not more exploration of his inner conflicts, his “metamorphosis” of ideas? This would be a minor gripe, however, as Estrin has enough tact and inventiveness to make his politics easy to imbibe by writing them into a lively story that doesn’t sacrifice entertainment in order to point out America’s mistakes. By the end, you are willing to believe this is “what would have happened if,” which is the primary duty of a novel borrowing a classic fictional character.
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