Thursday, August 15, 2013


People who know me and my love for insects might be a bit surprised to learn that I really don't approve of, and don't understand, the mania for collecting them. I had to for an assignment once in college -- for a whole semester, I was out there with a killing jar and a set of pins and all the other accoutrements. I was going to be graded on my collection, on its variety and the quality of its specimens and all the rest. As excuses for being outdoors when everybody else was (supposed to be) studying in the library or whatever, it was all right.

But I would have rather been given a quality camera and a notebook to scribble down observations about how the insects behaved while they were, you know, still alive.

The male protagonist, Frederick "Call me Ferdinand" Clegg, in John Fowles' astonishingly creepy The Collector feels differently about things. To see a rare or unusual butterfly -- he only collects butterflies, though he thinks of going into moths -- is to want it dead and pinned in a box. And since he's a very socially maladjusted man, as certainly all insect fanciers are*, he takes the same attitude towards certain specimens of other species as well. Such as lovely (human) art student Miranda, whom he encounters in one of those unfortunately magical moments in which a young man is prone to mistake an anima projection for true love, right around the time he also happens to win the football pool at work, meaning he has stumbled into the mid-century equivalent of Eff You Money.

To his credit (I guess) he decides that this specimen is better enjoyed alive, the better to someday live out his fantasy that she is going to, I guess, succumb to Stockholm Syndrome** and fall in love with him and marry him and have his babies. So he takes most of his pool winnings and buys and furnishes a human-sized terrarium for her, in the cellar of a secluded country cottage. As one does.

The fascinating thing through these early chapters is watching our man engage in some serious mental gymnastics: he's not really going to do this thing, but what if he did? He pretends to himself that he's treating it all as an elaborate thought experiment and is thus astonished, in a way that we readers are not, to find himself actually doing the things he's thought of. Buying the house. Fixing up the cellar. Stalking the girl. Carrying a cloth soaked in chloroform in his coat pocket.

This would all be very interesting reading right there -- watching a still-pretty-ordinary-despite-his-peculiarities-guy fighting this impulse he's had. But Fowles takes us from thought to deed, and just as we're thoroughly squicked out and sick of this character, Fowles seems to agree and flips the perspective; the second half of the novel is told from the perspective of Miranda, the collected, the victim.

And that's the other fascinating thing in this book, because we learn, long before Miranda becomes the author of chapters of The Collector, that while Clegg may think he's captured a pretty, helpless butterfly, he's really captured something much more powerful. Some kind of bee, maybe; Miranda has a sting. Miranda is smart and self-possessed and has a highly developed emotional intelligence that leaves Clegg floundering from their first face-to-face onwards. Not one scene between them goes according to Clegg's script; its only his extraordinary grip on his delusion, or his delusion's grip on him, that defends him from her deft emotional manipulations.

Unfortunately, that's all either of these characters turn out to be: fascinating, Clegg in his maladjusted inability to resist his icky and absurd impulses, Miranda in her repulsive fixation on class and on her idea of herself as one of the few rare and talented special ones who must battle against the ugly ordinary people. She's a mid-century epitome of the know-it-all feel-it-all fix-it-all College Girl Who Is So Much Better Than You. Though her fate is horrifying, the reader (at least this reader, who may have personality problems of her very own, oh yes) winds up kind of relishing watching her endure it, a little bit.

Which means that Fowles is a genius at eliciting reader complicity in the horrors he is depicting. This one goes on the strongly-disliked-but-undeniably-admired shelf next to Robert Silverberg's Book of Skulls. It wasn't quite the hate read that Book of Skulls was, but it certainly was not a pleasure read, either.

But it sure is remarkable.

*Sideshow Bob Grumble.

**Though that phenomenon and its terminology were not described until ten years after The Collector was first published.

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