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Reviews of Still Life with Insects


(published in 1989 by Ticknor & Fields; 1990, by The Bodley Head in England; and 1993, in paperback, by Graywolf)


Rod MacLeish, "Morning Edition," National Public Radio, September 12, 1989:


It has been said too often that there are only seven basic stories and that every piece of fiction is a variation on one of them.  This is hooey.  There are as many stories as there are lives and the almost infinite variety of human beings who live them.  The cliché about seven basic stories probably derives from the confusion about the difference between plot and narrative style—the way of telling stories.  The common style is a sequential range of orderly chapters, which carry the main tale and its subplots and characters through the time frame of the story.  There are of course variations on the basic narrative.  Writers are forever struggling to find new ways of telling stories.  Most narrative techniques resemble most other narrative techniques.  But occasionally something brand new turns up.  A young man named Brian Kiteley from Northampton, Massachusetts has published his first novel this summer—a work of astonishing brevity—Still Life with Insects.  It's a vast, complex story of three generations told in 114 pages.  What's more, this tale about a man named Elwyn Farmer, his wife, sons, and grandchildren, stretching across a span of 35 years, has to share those few brief pages with a great deal of lore about bugs.  Farmer is an amateur entomologist.  Each passage in Still Life with Insects starts with a quote from this bug-watcher's journal—the first in 1945, the last in 1984.  The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive writing about the outdoors, light, air, beetles, terrain, a marvelous passage about a bee swarm.  And with a skill that any writer worth his salt will envy, Brian Kiteley manages to bring his people to brilliant eccentric life, especially Elwyn himself, struggling valiantly to get over a nervous breakdown and the effect it had on the people around him.  Still Life with Insects is to the generational novel what Padgett Powell's Edisto was to literary comedy—that brilliant reinvention by a young new writer of something that's been done many times before.


Padgett Powell:


Still Life with Insects is unique for its oblique sentiment, its associative structure, its slow, lyrical welling of effect.  It is perhaps more a European book than American—Calvino and Max Frisch come to mind.  And the true daring: the novel is a still life—a quiet picture that slowly resonates and changes and keep you looking when you don't quite know, or care, why.


Eli Gottlieb, Elle, August 1992:


Still Life with Insects is short and splendidly risky.  Its first-person narrative is built along the frame of a series of field notes from a Canadian amateur entomologist, Elwyn Farmer, whose job (chemist), outlook (narrow yet principled), repeated nervous breakdowns, and attainment, despite it all, of an amiable old age he presents with wry pleasure for our delectation.  The book is rich in slow, tableau-like scenes of family life and packed with minutely wrought observations of the natural world.  The narrator’s voice is folksy but works at cross-purposes to the daring formal structure of the novel, and produces that rarest of literary things, an original.  In the space of 114 dense pages, Kiteley, operating with the sympathy and patient method of a good surgeon, lays bare a life.


Sabine Durrant, London Times, March 15, 1990:

Elwyn Farmer loves beetles.  He is as familiar with the habitats, markings, and mating preferences of the Kirby Backswimmer (Notonecta kirbyii), the Dainty Tiger (Cicindela lepida), or the Harlequin Cabbage Bug (Murgantia histrionica) as he is with the rows, relationships, and daily routines of his own wife, children, and colleagues.  His is a scientific eye, looking across from the bustle of his work place or kitchen table, to peer beneath damp leaves, scrutinize dusty corners, squint through stagnant pond water.  Still Life with Insects is his story, a volume as small, intricate, and delicate as the objects of his entomologist's fascination.  Within these 40 years of chance encounters with triffids, larvae, and maggots, though, are pinned flutteringly detailed incidents awkward exchanges with teenage grandchildren, tensions at the office dance, touching glimpses of marital intimacy.  Hold these up to the light and you get a clear sense of this self-effacing man (as detached from the trials and tribulations of domestic life as he is from cantharidin-secreting beetles and wasp stings ''I seem to be immune'').  It is a beautifully and humorously observed picture of American life collected, mounted, labeled, sifted.


Frederic Lindsey, Sunday Telegraph (England), May 20, 1990:


There is nothing harder in fiction than the creation of a good man.  When the writer chooses to couch his narrative in the first person, the task becomes almost impossible.  Kiteley makes it work by recognizing that absorption in a science or craftsmanship or art can be a man's salvation even in societies that least value such disinterestedness.  As Farmer's regard turns from the natural world to himself there is no alteration in that tone of cool observation which leaves no room for self-pity or falsity.  It is possible, if there is some element of autobiographical homage being paid, that Brian Kiteley may not manage anything so perfectly achieved as this first novel.


Zoe Heller, The Observer (England), April 1990:


Still Life with Insects  is a quiet, delicate, American novella about Elwyn Farmer, a quiet, delicate, American pest extermination researcher and amateur entomologist.  This may not be the most encouraging of summaries, but it is appropriate for a book that shies away from self-advertisement, preferring to spring its pleasures on an unsuspecting reader.  Interwoven with microscopic observation of strangers in roadside cafes, motes of dust in the sunshine, and the taste of cheese and ham sandwiches, there are spare but astonishingly vivid sketches of people and events—Farmer's wife, swatting flies and declaring plaintively that she is no longer pretty, or Whit Wheaton, Farmer's colleague, accompanying him on a bug collecting trip then returning home to commit suicide.  A portrait of Farmer emerges: sad, kindly, odd, but deeply dignified, and in his unassuming way, noble.  This quirky, beautifully crafted story avoids sentimentality and, in spite of its thoughtful sobriety, elevates the spirits.


Charles Simmons, Washington Post, August 6, 1989:


After his friend's suicide Elwyn and his wife, Ettie, have the widow over to stay with them.  During dinner the phone rings. Ettie answers.  It is Elwyn's brother-in-law with the news that Elwyn's sister has killed herself with a barbiturate overdose.  Ettie keeps the news to herself until the widow goes to bed.  This is Elwyn's reaction: "I pieced together the delicate pattern of incidents . . . and gradually fell in love with my wife all over again.  Her heroic reserve throughout the night of talk about one man's life and death, while withholding her own painful knowledge, filled me with a strong longing for her."  What is curious, and yet curiously believable, about this reaction is Elwyn's lack of immediate feeling, or expression of feeling, for his sister's death.  This affectlessness, amidst all the detail, is what gives Elwyn, and the book too, an odd dryness—and gives the book's title, Still Life with Insects, its appropriateness.  A still life is inanimate, although I suspect a pun expresses Elwyn's escape from human things: Still, Life with Insects.


Dan Cryer, New York Newsday, July 10, 1989:


This is a prose that avoids fads and tricks and becomes poetry in its resolute search for what lasts.  Still Life with Insects is a gem of a book, small in size, large in its satisfactions.  It has won a permanent home in my affections.


Peter S. Prescott, July 1989:


First novels are more often possessed by energy than by finesse, but Brian Kiteley's Still Life with Insects is a rarity: a young man's book that suggests the serenity of age.  Its construction resembles a sequence of pastel sketches—glimpses from forty years in the life of an amateur entomologist—and its manner is taut and understated.  This novella is a lovely book, original and glittering in its appreciation of a humanity achieved from contemplating a subhuman world.


Dolores Flaherty & Roger Flaherty, Chicago Sun-Times, May 1993:

A bug collector’s field notes seem an unlikely narrative device for a novel.  But Still Life with Insects, by Brian Kiteley, takes the mysteries of nature detailed in the journal of Elwyn Farmer to create a lovely, quirky story about a complex man struggling to live a simple life.  Farmer, a chemist for a Canadian flour company, had once hoped to study insects as a profession rather than a hobby, but his education came to an abrupt halt during the Depression, when a brother stole his savings.  He is a prisoner of corporate life, unchallenged and unrecognized.  His family is repeatedly uprooted by transfers and he is the victim of recurring episodes of mental confusion.  The novel begins at the close of World War II when Farmer, 43, has just returned to work after a nervous breakdown.  In a small stagnant pool at a dry riverbed he collects specimens of a swimming beetle that might be a metaphor for his own stalled life: “Underwater, it can stop still for hours at any depth, patiently awaiting gnats and flies that land on the surface.”  The ensuing 40 years bring recurring breakdowns and a growing collection of beetles with metaphoric meaning.  Farmer’s hobby and his family are his chief weapons to forestall episodes of confusion and to recover after them.  His wife is beautiful and devoted but often exasperated by his eccentricities.  He considers himself a failure as a husband and as a father to his two sons, who judge him less harshly.  Eventually, two grandsons share his interest in insects, and through one, Farmer gains insight into what the hobby has meant.  Comparing his grandson’s use of marijuana with insect-collecting, Farmer writes, “I often went into a sort of trance when I was out collecting, or even as I worked in my basement, mounting, labeling, sifting, building boxes.”  The reader suspects that the author might in fact be one of these grandsons, who is poring over Farmer’s notes at the end of the book, researching a planned novel about his grandfather.  The notion adds extra impact to the affection that rises from every page of this short, beautifully written novel.

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