“Know that then everything flies, absolutely everything. A thousand commentaries. An entire apparatus of footnotes.”
– Fredrik Sjoberg
Fredrik Sjoberg’s delightful The Fly Trap is two books in one: a story of the author’s experiences catching flies–specifically, hoverflies–on a remote island in Sweden, and a life history of the expeditions and writings of entomologist, naturalist, explorer, and art collector Rene Malaise, inventor of the fly-catching “Malaise” net. Deftly moving back and forth between the two narrative threads so that they hum as one, Sjoberg’s writing is plain and personal, clear and direct, without need of references to the scholarly literature of entomology. Sjoberg has caught so many interesting ideas in his net that our reading pleasure is just accompanying him on the many tales, memories, and experiences he recounts in the book’s eighteen brief chapters.
For Sjoberg, hunting for flies has poetic dimensions, including “anticipation, repose and slowness” (31), and the activity also satisfies the author’s need for seizing a terrain of specialization. “Everything fell into place with the flies” he says. “In exercising control over something, however insignificant and apparently meaningless, there is a peaceful euphoria” (49). Sjoberg is an expert, and we learn that over the years he’s discovered numerous hoverfly species on the island. He wears his expertise lightly though: “You never know in advance what knowledge may be good for, however useless it may seem” (65).
The most interesting aspect of The Fly Trap is Sjoberg’s claim that the book’s deeper theme concerns a single idea: limitation. “The hoverflies are only props” he says. “Here and there, my story is about something else…Some days I tell myself that my mission is to say something about the art and sometimes the bliss of limitation” (12). Indeed, Sjoberg is somewhat obsessed with limitation, finding in it the reason why he doesn’t care much for travel and chooses instead to do all of his research on a tiny land mass he calls home. Limitation focuses his energies: “Nothing promotes concentration like a known limitation of time, sometimes of space as well. If you don’t know where the limit lies, then it’s chatter as usual” (111). Ironically, as he teaches us about Malaise’s far-flung travels and exceptional adventures, Sjoberg simultaneously keeps returning to his own little patch of terra firma where he does his work. The contrast is intentional and makes for good reading. Maybe the point here is that there are many ways to be worldly.
Asked by summer visitors to the island why he collects flies, Sjoberg tells them that “my fly collecting was a method of exercising slowness” (188). It sounds fitting, and Sjoberg explains how over time he began elaborating upon his slowness theme for the benefit of his island’s seasonal guests. Yet a few pages later Sjoberg concedes that he doesn’t entirely buy his own grand theory of why he does what he does. In fact, just to be contrary, he makes a case for speed: “If you think the torrent–of pictures, messages, people, whatever–goes too fast, then in nine cases out of ten you can turn it off or just close your eyes and breathe your own air for a while” (190).
The point is that Sjoberg is open to complexity. On the next page he keeps theorizing but now we’re not sure what to believe. “Next summer I think I will say that my fly collecting is a way of exercising concentration. A focus so intense that I forget myself” (191). Even after some eighty pages after we first heard about Sjoberg’s interest in limitation, we’re still not sure where lies the core of his concern. Part of the issue here is Sjoberg’s patience with following the trail of his (and Malaise’s) thoughts–writing like he has all the time in the world. Maybe the idea of limitation just informs his book in a general kind of way? Only on the last page of the chapter does Sjoberg admit the deeper truth about his interest in limitation: that maybe he does what he does because of “a genetic inability to deal with choice.” In the end, fly collecting is not about concentration or slowness–even though each these on their own do give the collector peace of mind. No, fly collecting embodies the art and experience of limitation:
“All that’s required is the courage to see your own mastery in actual life size. Some people see only flies, or certain flies, in a certain place, for a certain time. It’s only a starting point, or a fixed point, but it is a point. That’s all it is” (198).
It’s as if Sjoberg is saying that fly-catching keeps him grounded. And that’s in fact what he loves about it. Collecting flies is a way get to know nature: “I go collecting with my net in the here and now and read my landscape in the present tense” (218). In other words, by chasing flies Sjoberg seeks a nature literacy: “let us consider the ability to read the landscape as if it were a language, to understand nature almost as if were literature, experience it the same way that we experience art or music” (219).
There is a lot to learn from The Fly Trap. It has a singular voice, humor, it weaves together two sets of stories from There/Then to the Here/Now, and it engages in Big Ideas like the idea of limitation. Most interestingly, the book isn’t a definitive statement on the state of fly-catching, but does say everything about the nuanced experiences of one fly catcher on a small island in Sweden. In the end, The Fly Trap soars probingly and patiently through its own incompleteness.