REVIEW: The Maggot People by Henning Koch

by John Domini

No small ambitions here: The Maggot People, a first novel by Henning Koch, offers everything from a Sardinian Eurotrash orgy to Christ on a coathanger. On a coathanger, Christ Himself, and if you’d care for a talking dog as well, the Alsatian in The Maggot People will more than fit the bill. Name of Gunter, the creature’s got a sweeping conversational range — as you might expect, considering it’s been around a thousand years.

Gunter, with his long perspective, would at once recognize Koch’s novel for what it is: a picaresque. It’s all about the ramble, replacing the increments of plot with one mind-bending encounter after another — though in this case the meandering feels downright creepy-crawly. Candide, in this case, is a maggot. He’s an entire body-bag full:

… someone whose body has been taken over by maggots. Invaded and conquered. The maggots eat your organs, they take over the functions…, and they’re much more efficient than you ever were. They eat everything in your body. The only thing they don’t touch is your brain.

With a catalyst like that — what’s more, one that uses sex to “colonize” its host — small wonder the resulting chemical reaction goes from curiouser to curiouser.

The Maggot People starts out a slacker love story, Eurotrash division. Its protagonist Michael is 23, a footloose Brit, saying things like “being busy is overrated.” He falls for another stray, Gunter’s keeper, herself bearing a fairy name: Ariel. She appears to be Spanish and a “lovely owl-faced girl,” just as Michael appears to be a lucky young man, taking her swiftly to bed. Alas, the next morning Ariel announces, “I’m actually solid maggot.”

In another day or two, so is Michael: man, you do it once… With that begins the mind-bending, and this often bears the serrated edge of exaggeration. One minor character, for instance, has “his face half-hidden behind steel-rim aviator sunglasses, like a cocaine dealer from Grand Theft Auto. Michael ought to know, since he dabbles in the drug trade himself. That plotline too, however, gets dropped almost as soon as it’s picked up. Our picaro no longer cares for money: “nothing but printed paper…, carelessly flung about when he needed something.” Come to think — just what does a wandering worm need?

To stay alive, Number One. Michael’s maggots can repair most damage to his body, their body, but Koch’s bug, unlike Kafka’s, turns out to have active predators. Powerful forces, mostly Catholic clergy, seek to obliterate these skin-sacks and their brains, and that threat, it turns out, had something to do with Gunter winding up a dog. Other maggot people have it easier, downloaded into cryogenic safe storage, while their depleted body hangs, yes, on a coathanger.

Most of the novel’s later adventures have to do with either setting up such destruction or avoiding it. In Barcelona Michael’s an assassin, in the Spanish countryside a double-agent, and in Rome he’s gone rogue. His first sponsor in the struggle is a high-ranking priest who turns up at, of all places, the Sardinian clusterfuck. But this Monsignor O’Hara, a man, is opposed by Abbot Giacomo, a maggot, and between the two they put Michael through all sorts of metamorphoses. Eventually, gone rogue, he’s deep in the catacombs under the Vatican, and there he discovers the flash-frozen brain and depleted raiment of Jesus. The Savior, turns out, was Himself a maggot, and recyclable.

With that the picaresque turns apocalyptic, in keeping with an essentially dark vision, a “world full of people sleeping their way through life.” The Second Coming proves surprisingly livable, however, not so much Hieronymous Bosch as St. Augustine. Indeed, hasn’t Giacomo been citing The City of God? Can it be that we’re reading some grody variation on the opening verses of John: the Word made Flesh?

Such heady questions, I rush to add, never keep The Maggot People from being one freaky roundelay. Koch brings off a number of spectacular effects, for instance a leap out a third-story window. If Michael sticks the landing right, afterwards he only has to lie there “waiting for the maggots to do their work; pressing the stub of the shinbone and foot against what remained of his leg, while the maggots reconnected the two.” One reads this novel for such passages, wickedly entertaining whether restorative or, the more common case, a massacre. Too bad the writing suffers a nagging sloppiness, such as the repetition of “maggots” above. Similarly, Koch falls prey to bursts of unfelt summary, in hand-me-down language. Here’s Michael reacting to the sudden reappearance, a hundred pages after he helped bury her, of his Ariel:

The first moments passed in astonished recognition. There was a jolt of recognition as he moved closer to her smell, the shape of her arm and the softness of her neck.

At flat moments like that, one wonders about the editing (and I should acknowledge that I too am with Dzanc Books, the publisher), but Koch is working out of a hard-forged personal aesthetic, clearly. Like Michael, he’s an outsider, living in Berlin yet writing in English. His book of stories Love Doesn’t Work (2011) featured swashbuckling and mysticism much like the stuff of The Maggot People. Besides, isn’t a certain lack of feeling inherent to the picaresque? Isn’t the point not whether we suffer Michael’s stubborn yearning after Ariel, but whether we’re caught up in his Gran Guignol? So too, when so much of the story’s a pan-Mediterranean game of hide-n-seek, I don’t see why Koch’s reborn Christ does away with all technology. That special effect seems borrowed from another movie, and yet I can’t deny the pleasure of seeing such a bucolic manifestation of New Heaven, New Earth. The skin of this book may barely hold all the squirmy things within, but they certainly tickle — in every sense.

The Maggot People

by Henning Koch

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