Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
Late last year an outfit named Quirk Books out of Philadelphia saw fit to publish an intriguing-sounding novel. Bedbugs, by Ben H. Winters, promised to be a thriller of the NYC kind, whose protagonists, Susan and Alex Wendt and their three-year-old daughter, Emma, land the quintessential too-good-to-be-true Brooklyn apartment and find out, of course that it’s just that.
After mulling over whether I was psychologically up for reading it, I decided I couldn’t not pick up a copy.
After my nightmare of a few weeks ago, I knew better than to read it in bed. Still lacking living room furniture, though, I had to find another spot.
Perhaps fittingly, I tucked into the paperback over at the Laundromat.
And a good thing too. Thumbing through the title and copyright pages toward the first page of the narrative, I absentmindedly brushed at the paper, not really thinking about it.
Then I looked more carefully and saw the edges were dotted with small black flecks. I turned from the dedication page to the title page to find more black flecks, along with some bug silhouettes. Something nagged at me, and I turned back further, to the first blank pages, and realized they each had a fleck or two.
In other words they started out slowly, so that the reader barely notices, and then suddenly a few pages in, you’re overrun. Just like an actual bed bug infestation.
That boded well for when I got to the actual text. It is truly a New Yorker’s novel, referring to specific names and places all over my Brooklyn neighborhoods. It was fun to read just because of the feeling of having been there. Not bad for an author based in Boston.
Of course, all too soon it goes somewhere else I’ve been, and never want to go back to. But doing so through fiction was relatively painless, especially in such a well-written book. (Winters, we are told on the cover, is a New York Times–bestselling author.)
In the first week we get a few foreshadowings: A sour smell in the room that Susan will use as her studio; the landlady’s admission that the previous tenants had “scooted out” with no notice; a mosquito she smacks while walking the Brooklyn Promenade after seeing the place that leaves a “bloody smear.”
And of course there’s the too-good-to-be-true Craigslist listing for a two-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights at a pretty decent rent. The reader is sitting straight up, tensely praying for them not to take the place, the way you look at a B horror movie and think, NOOO! Don’t open that door!
“It’s gotta be haunted,” Alex says when they first move in.
Only someone who had been through bed bugs would see the rent and the previous tenants’ hasty departure as red flags. The Wendts certainly don’t, and they apparently don’t even check the Bedbug Registry to see if those previous tenants had been fleeing something rather than each other in a breakup, as the landlady claims.
Interestingly, the movers the protagonists hire, Moishe’s, advertise themselves in the real world as bed bug-free movers. (They don’t get rid of your bugs but they will wrap everything in plastic to avoid transmission.) Foreshadowing, or coincidence? It hardly matters.
The New York specific scene-setting will not resonate with everybody. But when the story veers into bed bug hell, the place becomes Everyhome.
It isn’t until page 82 that the couple spots something that could be a blood stain. They ponder the possibilities, briefly, then dismiss it. But not entirely.
“Bedbugs. She had the sudden and absurd idea that by saying the word aloud, that small skittering Susan had been trying to hard not to say, nor even to think, Alex had invited them in,” the book says. “He’d given the dark spot permission to turn out to be blood, after all.”
The story gains momentum and gets a bit over the top, at least as far as the characters’ lives are concerned. But the bed bug issue is painted in all its horrifying permutations, and when all is said and done, the zany plot twists related to the context surrounding this hapless couple need to be that outrageous to match the outrageousness of an actual bed bug infestation.
It is a psychological romp, in other words, through the world of bed bug infestation, and Winters pretty much nails it.
Those of you who have been through a bed bug infestation will recognize pretty much everything, although there are a few inaccuracies, such as when the exterminator calls baby bed bugs larvae (they’re instars) and says they look like maggots.
Although the uninitiated won’t quite understand, the book is entertaining.
Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.