Updated: Sep 15, 2021
Fredrik Sjöberg’s The Fly Trap is a notoriously difficult book to classify. It is a thin, yellow book, about 250 pages long. The cover shows an island, a bug, and a triangular white net.
On its cover, The Fly Trap claims to be the story of entomology told by a devout entomologist, but that’s not quite right. There’s so much more: it’s part memoir, part history-of-entomology, part travelogue, part biography, part a story of collecting flies, and part 'something else', an in-between which Sjöberg happily acknowledges off the bat: 'the hoverflies are only props… my story is about something else. Exactly what, I don’t know'.
The Fly Trap was originally published in Swedish in 2004. For a long decade, it enjoyed quiet fame until the book’s English translation came out and Sjöberg began an international debut. For a brief, glorious moment, his name circulated through the New York Times and European literary festivals. And then, just like the tide, he vanished again. Currently, there’s essentially no information about him online – instead, all of his biographies seem to paraphrase each other. All we know is that Sjöberg is a white, Swedish man who lives on a rural island east of Stockholm (Runmarö). He has a wife and children. He likes art, poetry, literature, and most of all, hoverflies.
The Fly Trap opens with an autobiographical coming-of-age, telling of the days Sjöberg worked as a stagehand in downtown Stockholm helping carry a lamb and forth from a theater each night ('I remember it well…'). He dwells on the defining longing of his youth—a desperation 'to not become copies of the world’s expectations' and rather find a life rich in meaning and purpose. It is in the midst of this wistfulness that we skip, time be damned, across decades to the tiny island of Runmarö where Sjöberg has collected hoverflies ever since.
Nonfiction is often characterized by aggressive didacticism, but The Fly Trap has little interest in educating its reader. Instead it chooses to use hoverflies and entomology as the book’s jumping-off point for a litany of tangents. The intent is clear from Sjöberg’s prose, which oscillates between witty asides and prolix description, every now and then striking a rumination with surprising resonance. There’s a penchant for literary allusion, too, with particular fondness toward the DH Lawrence story 'The Man Who Loved Islands', a tale of a man obsessed with moving to smaller and smaller islands. But Sjöberg’s literary references are often left half-explained or barely explored, rarely contextualized within the story at-large. Instead, it’s more likely, he simply moves on to something more interesting.
The Fly Trap only struggles when Sjöberg attempts to foray into the purely educational. His weakest prose comes during an attempt at an unabridged biography of the Swedish entomologist Rene Malaise. Staying on topic feels like an oppressive chore, and the resulting chapters are deflated and dry. Despite Sjöberg’s infectious curiosity, it’s hard to muster momentum, and the through-line of the book feels lost in the details.
For a piece of environmental communication, one might say, Sjöberg does a rather poor job of staying on-topic. He even forgets to include the mandatory eulogy on 'the effects of climate change' in the conclusion. There is no sweeping discussion on what will happen when sea levels rise, the rain thins, and the flowers stop blooming. The deafening lack of a broader environmental context makes it difficult to classify the book as environmental communication at all. No story about flies has this many references to obscure existential literature, this many footnotes on the euphoria of the maple blossoming. The self-awareness in these observations is part of what keeps The Fly Trap readable. Sjöberg exercises a disarming wit, unafraid to mock the absurdity of his profession and even the randomness of his own musings. This self-deprecation is clear from the book’s epigraph onward (‘There are only three subjects: love, death and flies').
In the ending of the book, somehow Sjöberg ties it all together. The ending of the book, however, is where Sjöberg shines. 'I had always imagined this story would be quick to tell', Sjöberg writes in his last chapter. 'That isn’t the way it’s turned out'.
In many ways, the opening of the book is the best means to understand what Sjöberg is trying to say at the end. This story is about why this life is meaningful to him, and how a connection with the environment satiated the longing of his youth. 'To hear the quite singular buzz of a passing narcissus fly in the course of such a summer nap is a pleasure', he writes, 'for the simple reason that knowledge is pleasing'.
Finding intimate connections meaningful is hardly a new idea. In fact, Sjöberg observes, it’s surely integral to our own 'pronounced romantic temperament'. For him, going out and knowing every insect around him is comforting in the same way it’s comforting to 'close the door' when one sleeps at night.
Perhaps, The Fly Trap argues, we like to know the world around us, to distill chaotic things, to feel safe. We’re all similar to Lawrence’s 'The Man Who Loved Islands’, only in the eyes of Sjöberg, islands are just 'generalizations of a kind. Explanatory models. And where there are no islands, we have to invent them. If only for the fun of it'.
What Sjöberg gets right is the reality of the Great Unknown, which is that perhaps it’s not about telling people how sick our world is, but rather how much we love it and how much we already know. This is intuitive: we like knowledge. We like belonging. We like the world to feel small. When we think of the outdoors as an external, quantifiable commodity, we fail to recognize our own deep connection with the natural world. How beautiful it is to look in the sky and sense the coming of rain with the same intuition we see sadness in a friend’s face. How comforting it must be to know a single sub-species of fly by heart.
In its own way, The Fly Trap takes a stab at the greatest question of all, which is why man might dedicate his life to studying flies in the first place. The hoverflies are a generalization, maybe, or an explanatory model. But Sjöberg’s point is that no matter what it is, we should all find our own island-- some special way to make the world feel small -- if only for the fun of it.
Sienna White is researcher at Technische Universiteit Delft, where she studies river morphology with applications to flood modelling.
This article is an online feature of Anthroposphere Issue V.
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