By – October 31, 2011

Box­er Bee­tle fic­tion­al­izes an obses­sion with eugen­ics. Online Nazi mem­o­ra­bil­ia col­lec­tor Kevin Fishy” Broom uncov­ers the sto­ry behind a let­ter writ­ten by Hitler to Eng­lish ento­mol­o­gist Philip Ersk­ine. Erk­sine had painstak­ing­ly bred a ruth­less and inde­struc­tible bee­tle which dis­played a swasti­ka upon open­ing its wings. In thank­ing Erk­sine for the gift, Hitler writes, It is a reminder that the con­quests of the sci­en­tist are every bit as impor­tant to our impor­tant to our future as the con­quests of the soldier.”

While con­duct­ing his exper­i­ments, Erk­sine pur­port­ed­ly per­forms research on a Jew­ish box­er named Seth Roach, oth­er­wise known as Sin­ner. He explains that the inves­ti­ga­tions are meant to breed the desir­able trait of Sinner’s ath­let­ic physique and elim­i­nate his stunt­ed stature. How­ev­er, the exam­i­na­tions turns out to be a ruse for an unre­quit­ed homo­sex­u­al desire on par with Death in Venice. This obses­sion does not strive toward beau­ty, but toward jus­ti­fy­ing the under­ly­ing belief in the unde­sir­abil­i­ty of Jews.

By con­trast, Ersk­ine main­tains that his edu­ca­tion, wealth, and lin­eage make him a desir­able spec­i­men. His pompous self-delu­sion makes him a laugh­ing stock to the read­er. It also points to the soci­etal eugen­ics that has occurred in main­tain­ing the gen­try class, whether in Eng­land or else­where. Broom, who suf­fers from a genet­ic dis­or­der that makes him smell like repug­nant fish, demon­strates that by a com­bi­na­tion of wit, classi­ness, and a store­house of Bat­man triv­ia one can prevail.

Nicole Levy has com­plet­ed grad­u­ate work in Juda­ic stud­ies. She writes about Jew­ish art, cul­ture, his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture from her home in Swamp­scott, Mass­a­chu­setts and is a cor­re­spon­dent for The Jew­ish Advo­cate in Boston.

Discussion Questions

1. How does the open­ing scene set the tone of the nov­el? What trans­forms the somber sub­ject mat­ter into some­thing humorous?

2. Do the names of Horace Grublock, Kevin Fishy” Broom, and Seth Sin­ner” Roach sug­gest any­thing about their roles in the sto­ry? Are your ini­tial expec­ta­tions of them altered or rein­forced as the tale unfolds?

3. Grublock is quot­ed as say­ing of the Nazis: They allowed no excep­tions to their vision, and that is a les­son we should all learn.” (5) What do you think he means? How is his state­ment lat­er revealed as ironic? 

4. Rab­bi Brasch is reput­ed to have told Roach that Jews don’t have sin­ners, we have idiots.” (16) What, if any­thing, is fun­ny about such a claim? Do you think it reflects a cer­tain Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty” or is it spe­cif­ic to that character? 

5. Con­sid­er the invi­ta­tion to The Car­a­van. (23) Is there any­thing about the word­ing of the event that sug­gests what is being adver­tised? Were you sur­prised to learn of the type of par­ty it was? Why? What is the his­tor­i­cal con­text that might explain the ambi­gu­i­ty of the invite? 

6. In what way are Ersk­ine and Roach both out­siders? Why might Ersk­ine be drawn to Roach, apart from any sci­en­tif­ic inter­ests? Why is Eve­lyn drawn to him?

7. Ear­ly in the nov­el, Ersk­ine reads a book by Lord Alfred Dou­glas called Plan Eng­lish,” an actu­al jour­nal pub­lished under Dou­glas. (29) What do you know about Dou­glas and Oscar Wilde that might make this ref­er­ence fun­ny or infor­ma­tive? Does Erskine’s response to the book tell you any­thing about his char­ac­ter? Where else does the nov­el use his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and events to humor­ous or enlight­en­ing effect? 

8. Broom con­fess­es that I have come to see my body as a sort of Faulk­er­ian idiot man-child which I must drag along groan­ing behind me wher­ev­er I go.” (36) Do you find his state­ment sad, fun­ny, or both? Why? How does Broom’s phys­i­cal con­di­tion reflect or ampli­fy the themes in the Ersk­ine and Roach storyline?

9. Rab­bi Berg notes that a man needs light like he needs bread, but a man needs a lit­tle dark­ness, too, if only so that he can sleep, and dream.” (55) How do you inter­pret this state­ment? How might it apply to the lives of Roach, Ersk­ine, and Evelyn.

10. After meet­ing Eve­lyn, Roach real­izes how much she reminds him of his sis­ter Anna. (100) What con­nec­tions does he make? Do you see any sim­i­lar­i­ties between the lives of Eve­lyn, Anna, and Tara? What does the nov­el sug­gest about the women’s roles in Eng­land dur­ing the 1930s? How do their lives dif­fer from those of gay men like Ersk­ine and Roach? In what ways are they alike?

11. Ersk­ine has a series of dreams through­out the nov­el, includ­ing one involv­ing the rab­bits of Fran­cis Gal­ton (35) and anoth­er con­cern­ing a bloody, translu­cent, glis­ten­ing tube.” (105) How do you inter­pret these night­mares? Why do you think Ersk­ine char­ac­ter­ize dreams as pure anar­chy” and bul­lies.” (75) How might his dreams be anar­chis­tic or bullying?

12. Ersk­ine tells Roach that Jews, by and large, are greedy and trai­tor­ous and unpleas­ant” and that I know you wont be offend­ed because those are just the facts.” (114). Where else does the nov­el play with the notion of facts”? What does the nov­el seem to be say­ing about facts, his­to­ry, and human nature? 

13. What sig­nif­i­cance does the sto­ry of Eras­mus Ersk­ine and his search for lin­guis­tic per­fec­tion have in rela­tion to the rest of the nov­el? (118) In this same chap­ter, Richard Thur­low states: A lan­guage needs its secrete pas­sages and bricked-up dun­geons. Oth­er­wise poets like me would have no pro­fes­sion.” (121) What do you think Thur­low means? Could his obser­va­tion apply to any of the oth­er char­ac­ters’ quests for perfection? 

14. Con­sid­er Evelyn’s defense of dis­so­nance in her con­ver­sa­tion with Roach: It’s not about beau­ty or com­pre­hen­si­bil­i­ty. It’s about life. Dis­so­nance is the sound of life in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.” (171) Do you agree? Why? In what ways might Eve­lyn be con­sid­ered the hero­ine of the story? 

15. At the end of the nov­el, Broom notes a state­ment from Le Cor­busier, the French archi­tect of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry: Archi­tec­ture is the art above all oth­ers which achieves a state of pla­ton­ic grandeur, math­e­mat­i­cal order, spec­u­la­tion, the per­cep­tion of har­mo­ny that lies in emo­tion­al rela­tion­ships.” (244) Does this asser­tion con­nect the story’s many themes? Why? Com­pare the quote to the book’s open­ing epi­graph by Theodor Adorno. How might it be a fit­ting end to Box­er, Bee­tle?

16. How is the per­cep­tion of har­mo­ny” reflect­ed in the novel’s emo­tion­al rela­tion­ships and, ulti­mate­ly, in Broom and Stuart’s friend­ship? Do you think Box­er, Bee­tle con­cludes on a note of har­mo­ny or dissonance?