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Of Maggots and Men
The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore By Richard Schweid Four Walls Eight Windows 193 pp $16.00
In the 1961 documentary film Mondo Cane, that glib art-house tour of the depths of human arcana, a brief sequence features shiny black beetles, their carapaces encrusted with jewels, tethered by small gold chains to pins. They crawl in slow circles over the dark worsteds and nubby tweeds of ladies' apparel. The folks who thought this up probably envisioned a nocturnal New York of women trailing clouds of Shalimar, crowding into smoky jazz clubs or elegant little boîtes, their breasts adorned with these dazzling curiosities. The fad never really caught on, alas, but one has to admire the optimism behind its if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em strategy. It is vanquishment dressed up as victory. Because, in truth, we can't beat 'em. We are merely guests on this planet, living out our briefest of historical intervals at the indulgence of the maggots, flies, beetles, and cockroaches who will outlive us all. Susceptible as we are to comparatively low levels of radiation, infection, and military aggression, the way of all human flesh is, literally, through the maxillae and mandibles of these tiny, crawling fauna.
It's a grim scenario, to be sure. Failing to inherit the earth ourselves, we humans would much rather the planet continue to spin under the stewardship of something with liquescent eyes, four limbs, some fur might be nice--something, in other words, cute. Quaint and wishful thinking. In his essay "Wordsworth in the Tropics," Aldous Huxley condemned any such cozy revisionism as the "Anglicanization" of nature. "It is fear of the labyrinthine flux and complexity of phenomena," Huxley wrote, "fear of the complex reality driving [us] to invent a simpler, more manageable, and, therefore, consoling fiction." Though the cold reality flies (ahem) in the face of our comforting self-delusions, nature is alien and inhospitable. The insectopia is inevitable.
With happy sternness, we men and women of the twenty-first century cast a jaundiced eye on romantic Wordsworthian fictions. We understand nature's random, anarchic, and lethal power. And as proof of our new appetite for taking nature straight, there are two new books, Richard Schweid's The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore and M. Lee Goff's A Fly for the Prosecution, that offer an unblinking look at our world as it is: a vast banquet for the six-legged.
Schweid's book--in addition to being an object of beauty, boasting French flaps and a flip book of cockroaches mating--is great fun, elegiac, and deeply informative. Page 2 kicks things off to a rollicking start with a reminiscence of a bohemian New York summer:
There was a particular July morning when I left my dreams behind and woke up, and my first thought, even before opening my eyes was, What a strange feeling: the lightest of ticklings all over my body.... Lazily, I opened my eyes.... exterminators had come by and fumigated the building. My supine body was a charnel house, a killing field of dead and dying roaches that had come out from...all their sanctuaries.... The roaches covered the floor, thousands of them, and they were dying all over me. I leapt up screaming, my shout open throated and horrified.With its protean meandering--from a discussion of the economics of maquiladoras to roach references sampled widely from world literature--and its abundance of elegantly simplified science, including a clarification of just what that yellowish ooze that bursts forth from the body of a cockroach crushed underfoot is (it's fat), Schweid's book is, and I mean this in the most respectful and complimentary way, not unlike a cockroach itself: at times disgusting, occasionally maddening, and reeking with a dark intelligence that it would be woefully misguided to underestimate.
As for Goff's A Fly for the Prosecution, it's hard not to start out loving a book that uses an image of two intertwined maggots as a design element. Ah, if only maggots were enough. Goff is a forensic entomologist in Hawaii. For the nonscientist, the subtitle alone, "How Insect Evidence Helps Solve Crimes," conjures up a fascinating, nineteenth-century Poe scenario: a nameless metaphysical haruspication performed upon the tiny bodies of arthropods, perhaps with their multifaceted eyes preserving a final image of the killer, or their wings dusted with gunpowder residue, or maybe swarms of bugs flying in some collective incriminating formation, revealing the perp's face ("I would have been free an' clear if it wasn't for those meddlesome fleas!").
Isn't it pretty to think so. Aside from a mention near the end of the book of drug traces extracted from the digestive tracts of maggots, it seems that insect evidence is good for one thing only: It helps in defining the postmortem interval--how long since death. As it happens, the human corpse left exposed to the elements is like a buffet table at a bar mitzvah, feasted upon and picked down to its bones, with insects playing the role of my ravening Jewish relatives. Each insect has a preferred diet, which determines when it lands and feeds.
As Goff explains, when a corpse is just ten minutes old, flies lay their eggs in its warm, wet orifices, whether naturally occurring or trauma-induced. They are followed by those species of insect whose adult forms feed on wet tissue. In cases where the corpse rests on soil, the meal then moves to microbes who burrow through the seepage-rich dirt, percolated with cadaverous goodness; next, to those insects who feed on other insects; thence to beetles who prefer to consume dried and desiccated flesh; and so on and so on, unto dust. The kind of insect retrieved indicates quite accurately (Goff has plotted out by species the mean times of infestation, thanks to a set of closely watched dead pigs) just how long the party has been going on.
Goff explains the science of all this at great length. Perhaps too great for the nonentomologist. I, who am not a horror-movie watcher by any stretch of the imagination, found myself yearning for the next fleeting reference to a blackened corpse head or suppurating fissure teeming with hot, writhing maggots. To his credit, Goff makes no grandiose claims about insect evidence. But after slogging through a positively epic discussion of the perplexing slowness with which flies devoured a particular carcass, I wanted more of a payoff than to hear that the murderer came clean more or less of his own accord: "When the killer...was arrested," writes Goff, "his version of events confirmed my timetable."
Still, I'm intensely grateful to Goff that I now know the stages of decomposition (Fresh, Bloated, Decay, Post-Decay, and Skeletal), and both books clearly answer a cultural need at present. While engrossed in The Cockroach Papers, I sat across from a man on the subway--by the looks of him, respectable, normative, uncrazy, nonacademic--who was reading, with evident pleasure, a book titled Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales From the Invertebrate World. I looked it up on-line and found that its Amazon.com ranking was 74,386 (by comparison, the hardcover edition of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth had a ranking of 62,519 that day). How appropriate it seemed, the two of us reading our slithering, creepy books as we hurtled through dark tunnels, while on the streets above people moved in daylight, unaware of our presence underfoot.
David Rakoff is a writer living in New York. His book, Fraud, will be published by Doubleday in spring 2001.