Boxer, Beetle

Bloomsbury USA  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.

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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 Plain 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? 

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