Marc Estrin

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


In this novel, with the help of some friends, Gregor Samsa has survived his seeming death at the end of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and joined a freak show in Vienna. A little man named Amadeus Hoffnung, who suffers from Werner’s syndrome (premature aging), runs this Chamber of Wonders. The human sized cockroach proves to be a big hit with the public and a good friend for his assorted colleagues, who come to admire his optimism, compassion, and sense of social responsibility. Gregor thrives, except for the festering wound in his carapace (back) that will not heal--the wound made when his father threw an apple at him during his traumatic early life in "Metamorphosis" as a human-turned-insect.

In 1923, as a result of an life-changing encounter with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and in the context of growing anti-Semitism in Central Europe, Gregor flies (literally) to New York, where he takes up residence and soon runs into Mr. Charles Ives, the composer and insurance executive, who gives him a job as an actuary. The novel describes Gregor’s subsequent adventures over the next 20 years--as a surprise witness at the Scopes trial, as the subject of Ives’s famous "Insect" Piano Sonata, and finally as the confidant of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and member of his "brain trust." Along the way, Gregor contributes greatly to the science of risk analysis and management.

In 1943, at the president’s request, Gregor joins the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he serves as risk analyst and all-around moral questioner during the bomb’s development. Finally, Gregor Samsa, having survived 30 years as an insect, becomes physically ill as the old apple-infection turns to septicemia; and he becomes existentially ill, as he confronts the implications of nuclear warfare. He decides to commit suicide by placing himself among the instruments at Ground Zero of Trinity site, vaporizing in the explosion of the first atomic bomb; indeed, "Gregor’s was the most expensive assisted suicide in history." (p. 458)

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