While a party raves on below his bedroom in 18th-century Paris, a jaded and dissolute actor apparently expires, watching the candles by his bedside quiver and fade. When next he awakes, he finds himself possessed of unusual powers and even odder tastes. He notices wings and wonders, has he become an angel — or perhaps a demon? After all, he had been an Orthodox Jew before abjuring his faith for a more worldly life. No, he soon discovers, he has been reincarnated as a fly. More than 200 years have passed, and he is doomed to buzz around a contemporary Orthodox Jew, as she finds her way between her family’s strict religious observance and her ambition to be an actress. Thanks to Rebecca Miller’s densely detailed prose, such a transformation seems quite believable, propelling “Jacob’s Folly” on its own strange and often wonderful flight.
Being a fly has its limits, as the besotted Jacob discovers. An insect, for example, cannot expect to win the love of the beautiful would-be actress. However, his overall insignificance is offset by skills probably denied the ordinary housefly, including the ability to read thoughts and memories and to insinuate images into the humans around him. This allows Jacob to not only narrate the stories of Masha, his newfound love, and the virtuous Leslie, a married man who reminds Jacob of his long-dead father, but also to influence them. And as he works to free Masha from her strict upbringing, he also seeks to ensnare Leslie with her charms, replicating elements of his own libertine life.