Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Fly Trap (Book Review)

     The Fly Trap is a modern creative novel: one part biography, a second part history of entomology, a third scientific explanation, with rapture at flies mixed throughout. I’ve been reading Moby-Dick recently, and the similarities are striking. There’s the same tendency to switch themes between paragraphs and chapters, to weave the scientific, historical, and biographical together, and to embiggen fact when necessary. But what draws the entomologist in is Fredrik Sjöberg’s replacement of Melville’s whales with flies and the hope that the author will do the subject of our work and life passions the justice they deserve. How often is any particular family of insects besides butterflies made the subject of literature?

     Sjöberg’s centerpiece is the two-winged fly family Syrphidae, more commonly known as “hover flies” or “flower flies”, names which refer to incredible flight capabilities and the tendency to be nectar feeders. They are commonly yellow and black mimics of bees and wasps. Unlike the animals they’re mimicking they have no stingers to deter predators, so they avoid predation by looking like something dangerous. Sjöberg peppers his chapters with vignettes about individual species, including everything from taxonomic and regional history, physical and ecological diagnoses, and personal anecdotes. My favorite is the sudden “invasion” of Eristalis smilis which overtook the Swedish countryside, contrasted with Doros, of which there are only occasional sightings and elaborate rumors.

     The other subjects are “islands”, whether those be Sjöberg’s home island of Runmarö or a tree stump in a recent clear-cut. “Islands are generalizations of a kind”, he writes. “And where there are no islands, we have to invent them. If only for the fun of it.” He cites the loneliness and isolation of islands both positive and negative. Islands are perfect ground for the cataloger, sometimes disparaged as “buttonologist”, who provides a complimentary and more detailed worldview for “mapmakers”. 
“But the person who makes maps can never include everything in his picture of reality, which remains a simplification no matter what scale he chooses. Both attempt to capture something and to preserve it.” 
I particularly enjoyed his description of the Fly Tree, an enormous, 500 year old black poplar that was an island ecosystem onto itself. These species descriptions and descriptions of “islands”, are the stepping stones on which Sjöberg’s stories rest. 

     Yes, stories. There are actually two stories here, two interwoven biographies. One is of the author’s work with hover flies. The other biography is of the heroic, larger than life Rene Malaise, who sits in sharp contrast to the author. Malaise was a great explorer, eponymous trap inventor, and collector abroad, especially in eastern Russia and Southeast Asia. Sjöberg tries to avoid all collecting and exploration beyond his small island in the Baltic Sea. He says of the tropics, “Tropical nights can build into tremendous explosions of downright Cambro-Silurian cacophony when a thunderstorm starts or cicadas celebrate their orgies in the treetops. They’re magnificent, but no more than that. The indescribable sound of the Madagascar nightjar is worth the entire trip, but in the end it is merely interesting and exciting and fun to tell people about later.” Of the Congo River basin, “What an adventure! What stories I would tell! About freedom! But it didn’t happen. I never managed to say much more than that the forests were vast and the river as broad as Kalmar Sound. And that I’d been there.” Yet he idolizes Malaise and his travels, to the point where he starts a collection of Malaise-related ephemeralia. This ends ironically with an expensive purchase of a painting once belonging to Malaise. The author, so adverse to crazed collecting, has become a buttonologist. But Sjöberg stays to his island, claming glorious isolation and “slowness” allow him an illusion of control over these impulses.

     One of The Fly Trap’s most overreaching themes is what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls “The Virtue of Narrowness”. Sjöberg’s collection only contains the 202 species of hoverflies (plus one) found thus far on Runmarö island. He feels he must justify his narrowness, so he writes that it’s purely for pleasure. No, it’s because he loves the D.H. Lawrence style of isolation provided by islands. No, it’s a sort of “buttonology”, a collecting disorder, which in his case is benign. No, it’s an attempt to slow down in our fast-paced world. He doesn’t beg the reader to accept his reasons for collecting and observing his island’s hover flies as scientific. Even when he claims his study allows him to “read nature’s language”, the result is for enjoyment. Maybe he feels he can’t explain the usefulness of this small study on his small island to broader natural history, not even to a lay reader, but I don’t think he needs to. The Virtue of Narrowness is the precision and accuracy of your knowledge. It’s enough to only explain hover flies on Runmarö, and Sjöberg knows it, but he still claims “hobby” because it’s not his “real” job.

     True, he does romanticize his narrowness whenever possible. But I enjoy some romanticized narrowness. In my favorite poem by the midwestern American Tom Montag, “The Farmer’s Manifesto”, the farmer says of his father, “He had no /ideas but the things which /his hands could touch, or /those his eyes could find /at great distance—a glint /of sun off farmhouse windows. /Or close at hand, beneath /his feet. What he could /catch as breath; wind would /carry. He knew those weeds.”  Romanticized or not, that sort of narrowness holds an incredible depth of knowledge, what Montag could only name as “strange /dark madness, some amazing avalanche /of wolves, lakes, stars, tongues” and the ability to “hear corn grow in summer; /can hide your face in /the curving surface of sky; /examine a potato in light /so special you know something /flies back at you”. This is the sort of knowledge that comes from doing the same thing repeatedly over a small stretch of world and small number of subjects until they become windows. What seems like buttonology is deep expertise.

     I don’t mean to say that The Fly Trap is perfection or free from cliche. It belongs firmly within a genre of creative natural history writing first made popular in the 19th century, a Euro-centric and primarily masculine genre written by men for men and boys. Women are largely incidental to the story and are mentioned mostly as love interests or as props. His wife features prominently at the end of the first chapter, but only as the nameless “girl who sat in the audience one evening”. Of professional meetings, he says, “Normally no women take part at all. And the few who do happen to show up are usually the better halves of the biggest crackpots, wives who could easily pass as personal assistance from a psychiatric open ward. Well, maybe that’s unfair. But the fact is that unattached women could hardly find a better hunting ground than entomological societies. Unusual men, no competition. Just a suggestion.” Does that mean the only reason for women to attend meetings is to pick up men? Even the preface quote ends with the condescending line, “Me, I just concern myself with flies — a much greater theme than men, though maybe not greater than women.” The only exceptions are the short biographical sketches of the incredible, possibly lesbian Esther Blenda Nordström, a writer, explorer, and ethnologist who briefly married Malaise and traveled with him to Asia. Unfortunately, her story was abandoned when Sjöberg realized Malaise hadn’t named a species after her, and therefore Malaise’s “love” for her couldn’t be verified (unlike for Ebba Soederhall). I could have read an entire book about Nordström and her travels. Fortunately she wrote several. Unfortunately, I don't read Swedish (but maybe you do).

     The Euro-centrism is more forgivable. The Fly Trap was originally written and released in Swedish. The intended audience was Swedes, the setting was (mostly) Sweden, and Sjöberg is Swedish himself. The English translation came ten years later, so it should be read as a Swedish novelslashbiographyslashcreative-nonfiction and shouldn’t be taken as worldly. Especially since Sjöberg repeatedly admits his own non-worldliness.

      I realize I haven’t said very much about flies in this review. Fact is, if you’re still reading this and you haven’t already read The Fly Trap, you probably already have some interest in flies and will be delighted as I was of the hover fly natural history in this book. There isn’t anything to criticize about those descriptions except to say that they’re wonderful and I wish there was more of them. I recommend The Fly Trap for entomologists and non-entomologists alike.

 Sjöberg, F. 2014. The Fly Trap [English translation, Thomas Teal], Pantheon Books, NY. Amazon

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