Charles R(aymond) Larson Peter S. Prescott - Essay

Peter S. Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Insect Colony"] is about useless Americans scratching at each other in West Africa…. [The] characters are afflicted by irresponsibility and a sense of alienation;… illicit sex is the spring that propels the narrative….

[Larson] conveys the illegitimacy of his characters' presence in a landscape that has no need of them, that they cannot even profitably exploit. It occurs to Hunter Schuld, toward the end of his sojourn in a remote village of Cameroon, that he and generations of white interlopers had been blind to the reality of Africa; callous and inefficient predators, they gave nothing in return. Poor Hunter: a lonely entomologist who might have been content had he been left to study his African spiders, he awoke to only half the truth, the other half being that he is himself a victim, caught in a web set for him by a devouring woman. Hunter is vulnerable because he is innocent. He stands 4 feet 7 inches tall and has never been to bed with a white woman. Myrna Jeffers changes that: the wife of a defeated USIS official and a pathological liar, she seduces Hunter handily. Too late, Hunter tries an act of atonement but he fails, and that failure, it is hinted, precipitates his own abrupt demise.

This is a remorseless story strongly told. The sex fairly steams and the symbols are painted with the kind of bold brush that eases the lives of freshman English instructors. I particularly like the use to which Larson has put that most troublesome of structural devices, the split narration. Myrna tells much of the story; her husband, some; the wretched Hunter, being so early dead, must rely on the author to carry his part of the tale. There is a point to this diversity: because of his need for Myrna, Hunter must accept the fantasy she offers. The reader will not know for a long time that it is a fantasy, and Hunter never finds out. At the book's end, Myrna is still spinning her self-deception, confirming with every strand what her former lover feared was true about the white man in the black man's continent.

Peter S. Prescott, "Hot Tickets," in Newsweek, Vol. 92, No. 14, October 2, 1978, p. 94.∗