Brunt’s novella is a satire of both bureaucracy and scientific excess reminiscent of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Fatal Eggs. Mixing absurdities with looming threat, it leaves the reader uncertain whether the narrator is falling into madness or standing alone against terrible danger.
Having reached the pinnacle of plant biology, Professor Conrad Constant has set himself two new goals: to overcome the laws of nature themselves; and to become Head of Department. Determined to succeed at any cost, he finds himself under attack from both a new bizarre form of life and his former colleagues.
Starting with the entirely plausible, if claustrophobic, world of university bickering and then introducing broad references to Constant’s research, Brunt smoothly increases the level of oddity such that when the narrative turns to an argument over the last can of fly spray in the entire city the reader feels the absurdity but not the implausibility.
The rest of the narrative unravels along the same course from unusual to believably impossible. Maintaining Constant as an unreliable narrator throughout, the descriptions provide plenty for the reader to enjoy and analyse without ever providing the certainty needed to separate reality from fevered imagination.
Unfortunately, especially for a story dealing with possible misconception, Brunt’s style of breaking a single character’s speech into short paragraphs interspersed with brief action sometimes left it unclear whether it was a continuation of the same speaker or a new speaker.
Conrad is a bitter, venal, and arrogant man. But he is also shunned, surrounded by equally venal men, and brilliant. While he is not a pleasant man, Brunt’s mixture of distasteful characteristics with circumstances that excuse some of his decisions makes him a compelling protagonist.
The supporting cast is similarly blessed with a good mix of distinctive traits and nuanced behaviour, extending even to the non-human characters. Both Constant’s dog-come-room-mate Ralph and the first, fat, purple fly to assault Constant read like separate stories intersecting this one rather than mere advancers of the plot.
I enjoyed this book, although I will be leaving it on the shelf for a while before re-reading it. I recommend it to readers looking for the confusion of Kafka without the soul-crushing nihilism.
I received a free copy of this novella in exchange for a fair review.