In Kockroach, a wholly original work of literary noir, Tyler Knox brilliantly turns Kafka's The Metamorphosis on its head
It is the mid-1950s, and in a fleabag hotel off Times Square, Kockroach, perfectly content with life as an insect, awakens to discover that somehow he's become, of all things, a human. This tragic turn of events would be enough to fling a more highly evolved creature into despair, but cockroaches know no despair. Firmly entrenched in the present tense, they are awesome coping machines, and so Kockroach copes. Step by step, he learns the ways of humans—how to walk, how to talk, how to wear a jaunty brown fedora.
In Times Square he discovers a blistering sea of lights, a great smoking god, walls of glass laden with food, and the opportunity to rise in the human world. Two companions guide him on his way: Mite, an undersized gangster suffering an acute case of existential angst, and Celia Singer, a reserved woman with a disfigured body who finds in Kockroach a key to unlocking her hidden passions.
As Kockroach, led by his primitive desires and insectile amorality, navigates through the bizarre human realms of crime, business, politics, and sex, he meets with both great triumph and great disaster. Will he find success or be squashed flat from above? Will he change humanity, or will humanity change him?
Packed with love, violence, and a perverse sense of humor, Kockroach is the classic tale of an immigrant's search for the American dream as seen from a stunning new perspective.
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Tyler Knox holds a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. A former resident of New York City, Chicago, Iowa City, and Washington, D.C., he now lives on the East Coast with his wife and their dog.From The Washington Post:
Reviewed by Ron Charles At the start of Tyler Knox's new novel, a cockroach wakes up and discovers he's been transformed into a man. The scene is crawling with so many clever jokes and allusions to Metamorphosis that for a while you fear the whole thing may be just an extended writing experiment. ("Imagine Penelope coming home to Odysseus after 20 years at the grocery store.") But Knox quickly scurries away from Kafka's original. Whereas poor Gregor Samsa was crippled with despair, when this roach molts into a man's body in a seedy hotel, "he doesn't wonder at how this grossly tragic transformation has happened to him. . . . Cockroaches don't dwell in the past. Firmly entrenched in the present tense, they are awesome coping machines."
Kockroach, as Knox refers to his hero, is one of the oddest innocents ever to creep through American literature, but his coping follows the usual course: helping us see the strangeness of ordinary life by looking at it with fresh eyes (though now he's limited to two lenses, instead of 4,000). "There is much he doesn't know," Knox writes, "but he intends to learn," and even his hotel room offers plenty of mysteries to solve. He must figure out how to use the toilet, how to get dressed in his brown suit and brown wingtips, how to walk in this "pale pathetic" body. Much of this is played for broad, often scatological comedy. Unless you're a real insect lover, some of it will make your flesh crawl. The one sex scene is lifted straight from the Nature Channel, but in this context, it's hilarious.
When Kockroach finally rips the door off its hinges and walks out onto the streets of New York, he's terrified that some giant human being will stomp on him, which is not an entirely irrational fear: He sees billboards of enormous people all over Times Square. Convinced that smiling will ward off predators, he smiles all the time -- hardly the strangest thing about a man who eats his own regurgitated food and then licks his entire body clean.
The funniest parts of this early section show Kockroach learning to speak by mimicking the phrases and tones he hears all around him: "Got a light?" "Looking for a date?" "You got it, sweet pea." "I'm from out of town." "Move along, pal." "Gotta run." It's remarkable how many successful conversations he can have simply by parroting these phrases. As with Chauncey Gardiner, people hear what they want to hear.
Having the mind of a cockroach, he quickly finds success as a gangster. "Male cockroaches," the narrator notes, "are positively Washingtonian." (None of that pesty trouble with a conscience.) In one of many mock-serious interruptions, Knox explains the metaphysical dimension of his existence: "Cockroaches are not religious creatures. They take what they can as their due and live by a simple morality hardwired into their tiny brains. They never stop to contemplate their place in the great scheme of the universe for they have no doubts about their place in the great scheme of the universe. They are cockroaches. And whatever that sentence implies, they deal with it by surviving."
Strong and determined as he is, Kockroach needs guidance, and the novel needs some moral anguish to make it more than just a clever joke. Fortunately, that comes from a tortured soul named Mickey "Mite" Pimelia, a little hustler in a green suit who latches on to Kockroach for the rest of his life. (There's a joke in there for entomologists.) (No, I won't explain it; if that bugs you, look it up.) Mite narrates alternating chapters in his slang-ridden, noir voice, describing their parasitic relationship from the first moment he spots Kockroach strutting around Times Square: "It was the middle of that whole damn circus, beneath the Camel cigarette sign just off Forty-fourth Street, whilst I was handing out my leaflets with the sketch of a stripper looking oh so come-hither, that first I spots the Boss."
Mite isn't sure if this weird character is "the coolest cat on the Square . . . or some physically disabled vet," but together they rise quickly through the mob and eventually into national politics. (I have to mention here another Metamorphosis takeoff, a marvelous novel by Marc Estrin called The Half-Life of Gregor Samsa, which imagines the big bug surviving his family's abuse in Vienna and becoming a crucial figure in 20th-century history.) Tyler Knox is the pseudonym of William Lashner, a Philadelphia lawyer who publishes crime novels under his own name, and much of Kockroach is classic gangster parody, particularly those chapters narrated by Mite, who spends more time channeling Raymond Carver than Franz Kafka: "The only thing I ever been sure of, Champ, wheresever I go, disaster it follows sure as blood from a wound."
But there's plenty of rueful, Kafkaesque reflection on what it means to be human, too. Though Kockroach is a stunningly efficient killer, he can't understand the excess of human violence. His ordinary insect fears sound weirdly profound and existential. Who better to explain Shakespeare's lament: "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods"? His kind has survived several cosmic calamities over millions of years, but once he's infected with the singularly human trait of language, Kockroach begins to pine for companionship, satisfaction, some assurance about the future. Only by clinging to his essential roachness can he hope to conquer the world.
Don't be squeamish; pick up this witty, unsettling book. Even if you can't read, you'll enjoy the little flip-movie printed on the bottom right corner of each page that shows a cockroach transforming into Kockroach. You'll think of him every time you turn on the bathroom light and surprise those little scavengers going about their business while you go about yours.
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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Book Description William Morrow, 2006. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0061143332
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