Re: Part I (Chapters 1 through 5)
I still have chapter 5 to go in this section, but since Rose has already thrown out some ideas for the whole of Part I (see the thread for chapters 6-10), I figured I should go ahead and transfer some of my notes in progress.
The first chapter sets up a neat little opposition between the official version and the more personal version. There's a matter of fact, news story quality to the opening chapter -- here's what happened, here's what the officials are doing (and not doing), here's what his friends say. Really, it stands on its own as a complete version of the story. It tells you what happened, what was done about it, how it relates to the world at large, and how it ended. It even gives you an amateur psychologist's picture of the motivations behind it, which you're welcome to embrace if you want to. That the novel doesn't end there, and becomes infinitely weirder, suggests that you probably shouldn't be satisfied with that limited version of the story.
I'm probably getting way ahead of myself in suggesting this, but the strark distinction between the first chapter and the chapters that follows makes me think about what function the style of the story plays. The dichotomy between the normality of the first chapter's version of the story, and the surreality of the rest of the novel, seems to be an intentional way of setting off that surreality, as though to say, "This isn't some totally fictional world, existing in a bubble; these are still, in some sense, real events, but the only way to get at the meaning of it all is to distort it all into something really alien and weird. Otherwise, we're likely to miss all the nuances, likely to take the familiar for granted."
A general theme that I've picked up on early in reading the novel, and which seems to bear out in most of the early chapters, is that of the main character's isolation from other people. He's insular, obsessive, focussed on the minutiae of a field he has probably chosen precisely because it does seem so far removed from humanity. Again, that might relate back to the style of the story -- if we're all, in some sense, like the protagonist, then the best way to get us to chew on the themes of the story is to make it somehow inhuman.
One passage that leapt out at me came on page 10 (I assume that most of us are using the Vintage paperback edition): "His efforts were crowned with success if his name was perpetuated in the memory of his fellow men by being associated with an insect." So in a roundabout way, the protagonist is attempting to connect with people. Memory seems to be an underlying theme -- we know that the main character is going to go missing and never be found. All that will be left is his memory. (But do we know his name?) It's an odd form of contact, really, when they only impact you've made on a person's life is in perpetuating your own memory. (I may be contradicting myself here. That's fine; this is a discussion in progress, and I'm hoping some of you can help me sort out my thoughts.)
Sand is a major image. For the protagonist, it seems emblematic of rootlessness, freedom. It's constantly shifting, defined by its tendency to shift. It's opposed to clinging -- and I think that term foreshadows the conflict, although I'm murky on what precisely that conflict will be. Already in chapter 5, though, the woman is complicated his well-defined notions of what sand means. She says it can rot wood, for instance. Also, there's the paradox of a man hoping to cling in men's memory via his fixation with insects that live in the transient element of sand.
The beetle is another interest image. In particular, I'm thinking of the little hypothesis Abe relates concerning the motion of flying beetles -- that it might have been evolved to lure predators out into the desert, where they'd die and become carrion for the beetle. The beetle, then, is a mixture of fascination and carnivorousness.
In Chapter three, it's explained that beetles are not gregarious -- another thing they have in common with the protagonist. The sand-sunken village, on the other hand, is compared to a hive.... On the whole, the book presents a lot of parallels between insects and humans.
Two other phrases that leapt out at me: one is "the law of the sand". The other is the sign hanging on the municipal building: "LOVE YOUR HOME". That points to a few more themes, particularly the tension between isolation and home, and the idea of some intractable force that pushes us to one or the other.
Interesting stuff, so far. I'm looking forward to some or your comments.