The Fly Trap
June 09, 2015
Swedish entomologist Fredrik Sjöberg shares ruminations born from a life spent collecting, cataloging, and studying one very specific creature.
“What is the book about?”
This question is so common even among us readers who should know better than to ask something so impossible. Because what a book is about can depend on (among other things) who you are and which pieces of the text happen to reverberate in your mind after you’ve read them. And even from an objective point of view, a book’s subject matter can vary in importance. Good books can remove the burden of engagement from the subject matter and move it to the author’s voice and persona. That a book is written about a reader’s key topic of interest sometimes can’t compensate for a poorly-planned story with an uninspired voice. Conversely, a book about something so seemingly alien and boring can turn out to be a treasure, thanks to a writer’s capacity to engage and entertain.
I am not particularly interested in reading about flies. If a person were ask me, “are you into flies?” I would probably shrug or reply, “I don’t know”—neither a confirmation or denial. Flies are things that most people, most of the time, simply ignore. That Fredrik Sjöberg’s The Fly Trap is about flies is, for many readers, not an easily dismissible fact. “A book about flies? No thanks.” In fact, if you cruise on over to Goodreads, you’ll find exactly that: “If you are not interested in flies...don't read it,” says one reviewer. At the risk of leading readers astray, I’m going to counter the conventional wisdom and say that if you are not particularly interested in flies, you may still be interested in The Fly Trap.
Sjöberg demonstrates very well the importance of voice in writing and how good writers can write about anything and still captivate an audience. Written by a man who made his living in studying hoverflies, The Fly Trap is composed of eighteen brief chapters—each a compact essay. Some of these essay-chapters compliment others, and of course there are some topics that arise repeatedly. Of course he talks about flies, but then he also touches often on less concrete topics like the practice of cataloging (Sjöberg borrows Strindberg’s term “buttonology”), solitude, and then of course some people—mainly naturalists who play as precursors to Sjöberg’s own work in entomology, but who also have fascinating stories from which Sjöberg manages to extract deep insights.
The Fly Trap devotes quite a few pages to the entomologist René Malaise, an object of near-obsession for Sjöberg. By way of Malaise’s story, The Fly Trap demonstrates the nuance of discovery and success. Malaise travels to Kamchatka and stays for years, with few documents to show for his adventures abroad. According to Sjöberg’s findings, Malaise’s adventures prove to be broad in every sense of the word. What he’s known for today is an expertise in sawflies and a very effective fly trap that now bears his name. “There was something about him that was boundless,” Sjöberg writes. And perhaps therein lies the analog to our author—a man of more than simply flies, who also proves with this journal that his success and his modest enigma are a product not of only excelling at the buttonology of hover flies, but rather a product of being a curious and worldly man.
One of the book’s most compelling chapters is simply titled “Slowness”—another borrowed phrase, this from novelist Milan Kundera. In the chapter, Sjöberg shares anecdotes from his life during the tourist seasons on his home island Runmarö. He writes first, “People talk faster, eat faster, change opinions more often, experience more stress, while at the same time the whole world is being transformed at a breakneck pace.” But then proceeds to contrast the pros and cons of slowness and speed: “If everything just got slower and slower, we’d all go pretty much nuts and beg for speed with a sincerity that the preachers of slowness never come close to.” Slowness is a luxury afforded him by nature. It is neither good nor bad, but simply something certain people can attain and live within. Sjöberg next very cleverly begins a digression into Kundera’s novel. This lasts pages, and just before closing the chapter, our author wakes: “Where was I—of course, slowness.” Of course!
While The Fly Trap is definitely the musings of a fly enthusiast, it could also simply be called the diary of a clever and worldly man. In his own words:
Anyways, the hoverflies are only props. No, not only, but to some extent. Here and there, my story is about something else. Exactly what, I don’t know. Some days I tell myself that my mission is to say something about the art and sometimes the bliss of limitation. And the legibility of landscape.
Throughout the book’s eighteen chapters, The Fly Trap time and again offers grin-inducing epiphanies and a calmly optimistic perspective on the world of today. Sjöberg’s book turns the world of flies into a microcosm through which virtually anything else can be considered. The Fly Trap is certainly about flies, but it is also about everything else, from reading D.H. Lawrence to air travel to art collecting. And it is lovely.