The Maggot People by Henning Koch
Dzanc Books, Dec. 2014.
Fiction Review by Michelle Elvy
Published in The Ofi Press issue 47
An ambitious and sprawling novel, Henning Koch’s The Maggot People has a way of creeping under your skin and staying there. When I picked up the book, I wondered what I’d find lurking between the covers. I imagined this would be a novel of large metaphorical proportions. What I did not expect was the literal view into the world of maggots; I did not expect to follow the main character, Michael, and his love interest squirming along the way, as the maggots take hold and wriggle through the story.
Are you not following? Let me begin with the Amazon blurb:
A young man meets a woman and falls in love with her, despite her protestations that he will soon turn into "a maggot person"—a maggot-filled body topped by a still-functioning brain. Michael begins experiencing severe pains, and the young woman's prophecy begins to take hold.
Sounds like a weird novel? That’s only the beginning. It gets weirder from there. The reader follows Michael’s transformation as he succumbs to his maggoty existence (kicked off via a sexual encounter – how fitting that this affliction is an STD), encountering a talking dog named Günter (who used to be a priest), a maid in a pinafore dress (“’Don’t mind my getup,’ she said. ‘It’s Mama’s idea of fun. She likes to put people down.’”); sexual tension and release (with some squirmy sadism thrown in for good measure); drug trafficking across international borders. And intrigue in the Vatican – where else would a critique of organised religion take place? Oh, and a resurrection (on the third day, no less).
I like the quiet calm in the midst of such chaos this conversation between a bewildered Michael and his love interest Ariel when they find themselves walking behind the newly risen Jesus:
“What do we do now?” Michael whispered to Ariel.
“I don’t know. We follow him.”
I like that Jesus is hungry and wants wine and a soft boiled egg, after sleeping thousands of years. I like that Jesus taps his foot along to the beat of Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.
The author gets away with stating obvious truths because of the way the weirdness takes center stage. Because the reader has already lived through such odd realities as Michael’s leg repairing itself after a jump out a second-storey window and an uncomfortable moment of forced sex with an unwilling maggoty partner, utterances like this brief reflection on evil seem wholly appropriate:
“Actually, yes. I think I am evil,” said Michael after thinking it through. “I think we all are. I think we forgive ourselves and excuse ourselves. But, based on what I’ve seen, also what I’ve done… I’d say there’s something evil at work here, and it’s actually inside of us.”
“Time doesn’t mean a thing. Time is one of your little inventions,” said Jesus.
It’s almost as if the reader needs those stating-the-obvious moments, as small ways of bringing us back to some mundane reality.
On the large-scale level, this is a romp through a make-believe land that is challenging and, at times, fun. Most central is the critique of religion and politics (rotting, rotting). I particularly appreciate the way Koch plays with the Trinity and other cultural themes that are mocked in such gritty fashion. How appropriate that the dead, with all their maggoty insides, are the vehicle for considering religion and faith; the writer takes organized religion to new levels of absurd.
I also appreciate the author’s description of how he got the idea for the novel in the first place: something as basic as nature’s cruel relationship between death and maggoty life, squirming under the skin of a snake. What a crazy notion for a story.
But there are two central problems with the book, and I think they are closely related: the writing falls short in too many places, even succumbing to dull prose at times; and the novel goes on for far too many pages. For me, this book needed an edit to wrangle the brilliant parts – and there are plenty – into a tidier package. This novel would work beautifully as a long short story, maybe even a novella. But I found myself thinking, as I moved deeper into the labyrinth of Michael’s adventure, that the framework was unravelling. There were too many moments where I simply grew tired of the fantastical trip – in part because the presentation lacked the lustre of the intended meaning behind the adventure. Somewhere along the way, I stopped caring about the characters and the writing. Which is a real shame.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to judge this novel too harshly, for it is a book full of imagination. My central concern is that all that could have been accomplished in a more compacted space. Don’t get me wrong: I like a seriously sprawling novel. But in this case, written as a shorter work, this could have covered all the salient themes – with even some of the naughty, nasty bits – and would have been more satisfying. Indeed, after reading this novel, I am urged to read Koch’s short stories, for I suspect this writer excels in those collections.