Two very different books about fictional entomologists
I am ashamed to say, that until last summer, I had never heard of Jim Crace, let alone read anything by him. Then my oldest friend (50 years since we first met at Ripon Grammar School) persuaded me that he was worth reading. He was right, and I became hooked on Crace’s very distinctive style and diverse range of topics, ranging from the prehistoric to a dystopian future. Then I came across Being Dead, which I at first thought was a murder mystery, but no, it turned out to be something completely different. It is, in fact, a novel of many parts. It is a retrospective view of the life of two entomologists who became matrimonially enjoined after they meet on a student expedition. It is a love story with a difference. It is a commentary on bereavement and loneliness. It is a story of life and death. I am however, not going to dwell on the plot, a fair bit of which describes the decomposition of the two bodies 🙂 Don’t be put off though, it is definitely a book worth reading.
Early on we are introduced to the study organisms of the two Doctors of Zoology, which is how Crace describes his two main characters*. Celice works on the Oceanic Bladder Fly and Joseph on the Spray Hopper, Pseudogryllidus pelagicus. Crace’s description of the latter beast, a small (1 cm long) grey predatory beetle resembling a cricket, feeding on sea nits and sand lice at the ocean’s edge, was so cool, that, having never heard of this insect before, I was prompted to turn to the Great God Wikipedia, where, to my surprise, I found no mention of this fabulous beast! Nor could I find it in Web of Science or Google Scholar. I was forced to admit that I had been totally fooled and that the spray hopper was a figment, albeit very realistic, of Crace’s fertile imagination. I am used to coming across ‘realistic’ fictional ecology in well-crafted science but have not often come across it in literary mainstream fiction so this was a bit of a surprise.
The Spray Hopper, Pseudogryllidus pelagicus, as imagined and very badly drawn by me
Being the nerd that I am, I went back to the start of the book and started reading it again, this time noting down every biological reference, checking these with Google, Google Scholar and Web of Science. Luckily the spray hoper is mentioned fairly early on.
In addition to the already mentioned salt nits and sand lice, some other fictional insects appear, some with tantalising snippets of life cycle and habits. These include the Polar cricket and Blind cave hoppers, which I assume are Orthopterans, three more beetle species, the Dune beetle, the Furnace beetle and Claudatus maximi a specialist herbivore, feeding on lissom grass. Three flies get a mention, Celice’s study organism, the Oceanic bladder fly which feeds on inshore wrack, the interestingly named Swag Fly, which seem to have a penchant for blood, and finally, the Sugar Flies, which as they are associated with fruit rind, I assume may be Drosophilids. There is a fleeting mention to the Squadron ant and an intriguing hemipteran, a flightless cicada, the Grease monkey, that feeds and breeds in diesel and is dispersed in the fuel tanks and engine blocks of trucks and lorries.
A number of birds are mentioned, but without much in the way of their biology, the only clues being in their names, Wood crow, Rock owls, Skin-eyed hawks Sea jacks, Skimmers, Pickerling, and the Hispid buzzard. Crace almost slipped up with the latter, there is a Hispid hare, Caprolagus hipidus, also known as the Assam rabbit, which is native to south Asia.
Crace doesn’t just invent animals, he does plants as well. Central to the decay theme and with several mentions is Festuca mollis or lissom grass. Crace also gives us several alternative common names for this grass, angel bed, pintongue, sand hair, repose. The adjectives he uses when talking about lissom grass are all indicative of its role in both the choice of location for the act of sexual congress that unwittingly makes the entomological couple murder victims; bed, mattress, irresistible, velvety, sensuous. Again this is a totally made up species, although there is a Bromus mollis that depending on your source is either a synonym or a sub-species.
Then there are the wonderfully evocatively named plants, Flute bush, Sea thorn, the Tinder trees (described as being very dry), the Sea pine, also known as Slumber tree or Death’s Ladder, Vomitoria that grows in thickets, an imaginary relative of walnut, Juglans suca that yields sapnuts, Stove weed with green bells, Pyrosia described as having high bracts, firesel, cordony and finally, the staple crop of the area, manac beans.
Three real plants get a mention, Spartina, red stem, Ammannia spp., which grows in water, and wet soil, and are used in aquariums and finally broom sedge Andropogon virginicus, native of the USA but a weed in Australia where it is known as whiskey grass as it was used as packaging for bottles of USA whiskey, which is a bit of trivia I didn’t know.
And finally, the one made up mammal, the Sea bat which given how few mammals there are, is entirely proper 🙂
All in all, reading Being Dead was a rewarding, if not entirely enjoyable experience, although I guess it depends on how you define enjoyable. I do however, recommend it to you as good read, if only for the thrill of meeting the Spray hopper!
Coincidentally the next book I read was The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams, which is also a murder story with an entomological connection, but unlike Being Dead, the entomology is hard core and totally real – I know, I checked J Like Being Dead, it is also worth reading, although again, there are definitely metaphysical under- and overtones so ones enjoyment is tempered by having to think hard about what you are reading.
Read them back to back for the full experience and relax in the knowledge that you don’t need to keep fact checking as I have done it for you already 🙂
p* Strangely I was slightly irritated by this despite it reflecting that zoology, as I have always said, is mainly entomology 🙂