“It is a curious fact of nature that that which is in plain view is oft best hidden.” Edgar Allan Poe knew this well, as “The Purloined Letter” demonstrates. The thief hides his stolen letter in the most obvious place – the letter rack – but he does something else which is often overlooked in recalling the story– he camouflages the letter. However, the thief’s attempt at misdirection is, like the Prefect’s search, a little too thorough, and this is what enables C. Auguste Dupin to identify and recover the letter.
There is a certain flavour of the overly-thorough attention to detail in the recounting of Donald A. Wollheim’s ‘Mimic’ (1942). The story’s narrator works as an assistant to a museum curator, specialising in insects and much of his narrative is devoted to describing the many ways in which insects disguise themselves. ‘There is a moth […] that looks like a wasp. […] It knows somehow that it is helpless and that it can survive only by pretending to be as deadly to other insects as wasps are” (281).
In particular, the narrator is keen to talk about army ants, those ferocious predators who travel “in huge columns of thousands and hundreds and thousands” (281). Everything is afraid of army ants because of their sheer relentlessness but, the narrator tells us, other things travel in those columns, in disguise, relying on mimicry to bring them the illicit protection of the ants’ superior strength.
It would be a poor reader who didn’t realise that they were being directed to make a connection between the narrator’s interest in insects and his description of the man in black he remembers from childhood, “always dressed in a long, black cloak that came down to his ankles, and […] a wide-brimmed hat down far over his face” (280). Like a beetle, one might think. There is that same sense of sheathed uniformity, of being swathed in shiny chitin. It may also be, as the narrator suggests, sheer luck that he happens to be in the street as the story proper finally begins to unfold, as the janitor rushes into the street, calling for help, but it’s difficult not to think of it as an authorial convenience. To my mind, Wollheim is working hard to ensure that the reader sees a certain picture. And yet, if we are thinking about mimicry, isn’t this what any accomplished mimic would be doing – firmly misdirecting the gaze.
In the story, the man in black has been found dead, but as becomes apparent he is not entirely what he seems to be. “For several instants we saw nothing amiss and then gradually – horribly – we became aware of some things that were wrong” (282). The man in black is, it would seem, some sort of enormous insect that has learned how to co-exist alongside humans in the city, mimicking human appearance and, to some extent, human behaviour too. Even then, it is still not quite what it seems, being female rather than the male it presents itself as being.
The story has a number of weaknesses, not the least of which is the narrative psychology that accounts for the ‘man in black’s reaction to women: the narrator speculates that the creature was afraid of women because they notice men, and look more closely. I had assumed, once I had realised what was happening, that the ‘male’ is afraid of the female because of some behavioural quirk – maybe she eats him after mating? – but Wollheim goes with “feminine jealousy”. Not that this accounts, either, for the “sharp, round hole newly pierced in his chest just above the arms, still oozing a watery liquid” (282). Perhaps one should look to events at the end of the story for a clue to the perpetrator’s identity, but no proper answers are offered, even then.
Something that does work, and works well, is something the story leaves unsaid. As the offspring of the mysterious man-beetle, released from their confinement in a metal box, escape from the room, the narrator looks out of the window to follow their flight, and sees something else lurking in disguise on a nearby rooftop. His observation transforms the urban scene into a landscape of terrifying potential. Nothing can be relied on to actually be what it appears to be. As the narrator puts it, “Nature practices deceptions in every angle. Evolution will create a being for any niche that can be found, no matter how unlikely” (283). At a stroke, the city, a civilised place, the antithesis of the wild countryside, becomes a place in which the natural world is once again a threat to humanity.
If, as has been suggested at various times, the Weird is a product of modernism, something most at home in the urban landscape, then this story fits right in. It is difficult not to be haunted by the last few paragraphs of the story. In particular, no journey through the back streets of a big city can ever be the same again. In common with Leiber’s “The Smoke Ghost”, no train journey can be entirely free of fear. <
And yet, let us back up and think about this story again, starting with the title. I fear my postcolonial training got the better of me when the title immediately made me think of V.S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men and also Homi Bhabha’s essay, “Of Mimicry and Men”. Naipaul and Bhabha are talking in their various ways about cultural displacement and a discourse of emigration, settlement, adjustment, fitting in – but fitting in in such a way as to be only a little different; in Naipaul’s case, his narrator actively exploits the way in which women find him exotically different while striving at the same time to fit in as much as possible. Bhabha talks in terms of “colonial mimicry” as the “desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite”.
It’s a long way from a Wollheim short story, perhaps, but I was also struck by a line early in the story, when the narrator describes the man in the black cloak: “He was a sight from some weird story out of the old lands” (280). What old lands? “Mimic” is set in New York, gateway to the USA for emigrants from Europe, risking all in the hope of passing inspection at Ellis Island and settling down to make a new life in the Land of the Free. Returning to the narrator’s comment that “Evolution will create a being for any niche that can be found, no matter how unlikely”, one is obliged to wonder what is in fact happening here, for surely, the point is that the man-beetle no longer fits in, is no longer just sufficiently different to fit in. We might recall that as a child the narrator jeered at him because of his fear of women but we might always note that the man-beetle has never quite fitted in. He is already a little too old-fashioned; he belongs elsewhere but not in a way that’s entirely comfortable.
It’s tempting to speculate as to what is going on. Did the need to remain camouflaged require the man-beetle to travel with the other emigrants as they left Europe rather than stay behind and become conspicuous. But what about the rate of evolutionary change? How long does it take for the man-beetle to adapt? Longer, apparently, than the people. They have become assimilated, changed their appearance at least, become recognisably Other, whereas the man-beetle has not been able to keep up with the pace of change and is increasingly unable to conceal itself among humans. Or rather, it can no longer mimic the people amongst whom it once lived and is now classified by others as a creature that lives at the margins of society rather than being part of society. Its mimicry no longer properly works and thus it is increasingly vulnerable to other predators. There is, of course, also a hint that America’s modernity is more than it can cope with. It has become what Bhabha would call a ‘partial presence’, transformed almost inadvertently by the fact that natural adaptation doesn’t seem to move as fast as cultural adaptation. Its presence is revealed by its failure to respond to changes.
>Bhabha quoted a passage from Lacan as an epigraph to his essay: “The effect of mimicry is camouflage … It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming mottled – exactly like the technique of camouflage practised in human warfare”. And this, perhaps, is at the heart of the man-beetle’s situation. Its camouflage is so perfect it can work only for a brief moment of time before it is detected. In its perfection is its downfall.
Wollheim clearly presents his story as a narrative about successful mimicry, but the point is that this success is now and must inevitably be historic. The mimicry has been detected, by what we can never be sure, because it is insufficiently mottled. The horror and the weirdness remain in that the reader is still left not knowing what else might be lurking in the city, but there is an implicit reassurance that, given time, each instance of mimicry will be identified because of its perfection. At the heart of this story is not success but failure.