ALTHOUGH THE TITLE of David Grand's first novel may lead the reader to envision a small parasitic insect clinging to a host, human machinations can prove just as creepy. Bugs at least behave naturally. The humans in this book don't.
Grand has imagined a futuristic compound that houses "Poppy," a hacking, decaying old millionaire who resembles the late Howard Hughes (and perhaps Michael Jackson), and the squadron of drones who tend to his every whim: entertainment, financial management, personal needs, pest control. Like Hughes, Poppy lives in fear of germs, and his workforce lives under a regime of sterility, including shaved arms and heads for the personal attendants, and regulation-issue flyswatters for all. Those common--and much-dreaded--flies are the only wholly normal creatures in this artificial world whose inhabitants seem unaware of any individuality or history of life.
If all this weren't creepy enough, there's the constant surveillance, which makes George Orwell's Big Brother seem like a benign presence. Poppy's personal attendant, Herbert Q. Louse, visits the toilet in a room with six cameras and goes to sleep in a room with a peephole so the person in the adjacent room may spy on him. When he receives correspondence from a mutinous group attempting to recruit him, the letter notes that he is already implicated in their activities, since the surveillance cameras are watching him read the letter. This could be the beginning of an exciting escape adventure for Louse, but his senses are so numbed and his brain so shriveled that escape would probably kill the poor dullard.
Alternately depressing and grotesque, Grand's world borrows from a century of fictional and cinematic science-fiction to construct a vision of a worst-case scenario for the fate of the individual. In this day of key cards, censored e-mail, and bar-code monitors, it's no surprise that these are themes that trouble and occupy us. But what are Grand's motives in reminding us of this? A warning? A look at how much worse it could be, and, conversely, how good we've got it now? Then why not celebrate the freedom of the individual by choosing to read something else.