(REVIEW) Remember How Much You Loved Bugs?: Lovebug, by Daisy Lafarge
Lottie Walker falls inside the complicated entanglements of affection and infection in Daisy Lafarge’s non-fiction work Lovebug (Peninsula Press, 2023), a book that has gotton under her skin, harnessing her to approach an uncomfortable ‘meshwork of infection and intimacy.’ Here is an exercise in abjection, with a writer, whose research methods are genuinely parasitic.
My childhood was full of bugs. So too was Daisy Lafarge’s, ‘Only in the final stages of re-writing this book did I make the link between its subject matter and my childhood love of bugs’ she writes in the final pages of her book Lovebug (2023). Last night, I continued following the threads left behind by this writing, weaving provocations together before turning in for the day. I dreamt of Heimlich – the lime-coloured caterpillar with a thick German accent from Pixar’s A Bugs Life. Heimlich was upset about something. I consoled him until I awoke in the middle of a sentence I can no longer recall. As I adjusted to the light, and my body unfurled, I gradually became unharnessed from the dream, unable to narrate any detailed rendition of my time with the bug. All that was left was page 136 of Lovebug, face down on my bedside table.
When I finish and close a book, I feel the same urgency to recollect and sometimes the inability to do so. Yet, I can trace the contours of Lovebug; Lafarge has gotten under my skin. My dream of the German caterpillar was unsurprising, like falling asleep in front of Blue Planet and then dreaming of beluga whales. It got me thinking about other anthropomorphized critters I’d encountered through my grainy television set. Remember how James cultivated a giant peach from crocodile tongues? The witty invertebrates that take up residence inside the peach eventually form his family. In my second week at university, we sat down to watch a scene from A Bugs Life, only then to compare the movie with the redistribution of wealth and the immorality of Socialism. The lingering thought of Barry B. Benson (the bee iteration of Jerry Seinfeld) and New York florist Vanessa becoming romantically involved and co-owning a flower shop now seems perverse.
If I stepped outside, I was intrigued by the louse lurking beneath damp stones. I’d ogle for minutes at the mass of wasps collected in sugary sweet syrup traps throughout the summer. Swatting flies and crushing mosquitos were sport and good table manners. Lafarge engages the reader with these familiar curiosities and associations, harnessing them to approach the uncomfortable ‘meshwork of infection and intimacy’. We are offered an interpretation of the ambivalent relationships between species through a lyric dissembling and reassembling. She begins by explaining, ‘This book is an exercise in abjection’ – where abjection is the process of altering your reality, in wilding the imagination. This book cannot help but be playful, engaging us in a non-visual enquiry through the lives of microorganisms which necessitates imagination. We are encouraged to conjure the many representations of Lovebug without limitation.
My parasitic methods of research – a failure to comply with the boundaries of knowledge and its appeal to objectivity – seemed to echo the microorganisms I was studying. Pathogens do not treat the body as a closed text: they are a painful reminder of our openness to the world and each other.
Lafarge is a writer who, grappling with ‘writing’s utility’, makes the decision to write without rule, just as the pathogen broaches the boundary of the body without inhibition. I love the way she describes her research as parasitic, emphasising that the lines between her research methods and material are there to be blurred, to be crossed because they infect each other, make each other up. In this spirit, Lafarge demands that we, as readers, remain open to infection, a text-based and at times visual contamination that would have us be made aware of and confront the vulnerability of our borders. As a writer, she makes an appealing invite and stays close by to guide us. I think that the mark of good non-fiction writing is to craft an open text for your reader, leaving the door ajar for us to step through and see anew even if we never thought to cross this threshold.
As I read on, I was cast off into the orbit of organisms, I came to linger on the idea evoked by Lafarge that, ‘All beings circulate through one another’ (Denis Diedorot). Arriving in a Covid altered world, where sanitation and hygiene procedures are the new law and order, her suggestion of abjection doesn’t seem so alien. The uncanny sensations we associate with our bodily thresholds being breached are there waiting to be engaged with, and thought through.
In Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, abjection is the reality-altering horror and revulsion experienced when an individual’s sense of self is presented with something that threatens its coherence… Abjection cracks open the self, muddying the distinction between human and non-human, life and death.
Lafarge admits that her task is ‘to write about the seemingly unwritable’. Unwritable maybe, but not at all unreadable. In a book where scientists, poets and philosophers are at large it could happen that book grows heavy or becomes too academically dense. Instead, Lafarge does what research should do when it transforms to creative non-fiction; she remains transparent, allowing her own dwellings and visual stimuli to compliment the text by way of an interdisciplinary scrapbook. Reassuring us of her research methods, she offers Bataille’s understanding of reading as just another example of infection; ‘Literature is not innocent. It is guilty and should admit itself so’.
Digesting this sort of interdisciplinary diet often leaves the writer ‘paralysed and dismayed’. As we might start to feel the text thickening, Lafarge takes us away, to her desk, to a forest or underneath the microscope. Her voice allows for the text to be incoherent at times because we trust her to go away and come back again, her writing ‘becoming something new and irreducible in each encounter’.
The ecosystem of Lovebug is a complex terrarium of human and more-than human entanglements. What I suggest you bring is your attention and your discomfort. This is a text that lays the body, our bodies, bare, and invites us into the network of pathogens and parasites at mortal play in and around us, yet mostly unseen: ‘subverting the dominance of vision makes room for alternative forms of knowing’. In a text where metaphors can kill, Lafarge offers us a different metaphor, one ignited by intimacy. Offering her own insight into the symbiosis of infected lovers, infected bodies; ‘Conditioned to welcome damage, I am curious about this uninvited guest’. Lafarge invites the pathogen to sit down with their hosts, to eat from the same table, the same plate – dancing on the precipice of vulnerability.
Language is full of these pockets of affective weather, linguistic micro-environments in which we can gather and clumsily articulate… ‘If language is riddled with pestilence in the form of metaphor and cliché, these are perhaps a linguistic parallel to the role of parasites and diseases within an ecosystem’.
Now, I cannot help but read the word ‘Lovebug’ as a term of endearment. A googly eyed, fluffy creature that has now latched onto my impression of the book. Shaped and refined by Lafarge’s engagement with microbial life forms, her excitement toward our ‘little beasts’ is, well, infectious. Once the bug breaches the border, they remain with us and these interactions are exposed as love. As chapters crept away, I injected my own recollections of this breed of brutal love. The sound of the school nurse explaining to my mother that I’d probably picked up a bug after vomiting outside year seven physics. I remember feeling completely the opposite, that instead the bug had picked up me – pale and loose around the gills, as my body would supress the churning response to its presence. I would eventually leave school behind and allow other things to enter my body, people. The respective hosts depart from one another, washing off in the shower. When I became an auntie, I was instructed not to kiss my baby niece, told that respiratory syncytial virus is contracted through contact with the contaminated droplets on my lips, I become a deadly auntie. These instances of critters crossing and threatening to crossover into our bodies are a reminder of our shared vulnerability, a common thread that Lafarge embroiders throughout Lovebug and between species. There will be moments where my body will fail and succeed in negotiating its boundaries, where my body is made to be tender, weakened by the presence of another. Sounds familiar. I leave Lovebug with an enriched imagining of my own relationship to and shared intimacies with microbial life and that I, this coherent self, am subject to changes which are altogether incoherent.
What started as the outcome of academic research into zoonotic diseases has, to my impression, manifested in a collection of notes on intimacy in their manifold assemblages. Lafarge prompts us to access these intimacies through the ways in which we think and speak of infection, allowing the metaphors of Lovebug to entangle themselves further into the web of life. A good book ignites curiosity. Lafarge invites us to the table where Lovebug is dining, leaving us with a hunger for microscopic insight into the parasitic passengers crossing the border of my body. In her essay, The Doe (2020), Lafarge asks questions of the parallels between the post-plague emergence of wildlife in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron and the lockdown induced liberation of wild animals. ‘Never uncomplicated’ Lafarge writes, ‘affection between species is the cup of temperance whose waters run in both directions’. Three years and one pandemic later, Lovebug gathers up the complicated entanglements of affection and infection, dispersing them into a boundless running river. We, and the bugs, are carried by its current.
You can grab a copy of Lovebug, out this week on 5th October, by Daisy Lafarge, directly from Peninsula Press here.
Text: Lottie Walker
Image: Peninsula Press