NEW YORK–A routine toothbrushing turned into a profound exercise in nightmarish, existential horror Monday, when poverty-stricken Columbia University graduate student Marc Edelstein, 24, came across "the most gigantic cockroach this side of Gregor Samsa" in the bathroom of his one-room, walk-up efficiency.

Columbia grad student Marc Edelstein.

"It was terrifying," Edelstein told colleagues at the Ivy League university's English department shortly after the encounter with the giant cockroach. "Every day, I can't believe I am living in that apartment. The humiliations society forces me to undergo, just to get my stupid Ph.D, defy all rational, intellectual thought. Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning and see the squalor in which I live, it feels as if I've somehow found myself on trial before a group of faceless, bureaucratic agents for some horrible crime I didn't commit, and no one will even explain to me what my crime was."

Edelstein, whose combined rent and tuition far exceed his meager earnings from work-study grants and a part-time job as a teaching assistant, has struggled with an insect problem ever since moving into the 108th Street and Broadway apartment in the fall of 1997.

Edelstein called the cockroach "a deeply disturbing symbol of the alienation and pain seemingly inherent in every aspect of modern grad-student life." What's worse, he said, the enormous insect so paralyzed him with "intense, soul-searing fear" that he was unable to kill it before it escaped down the drain.

"This wretched, prehistoric creature," Edelstein said, "has survived to torment me anew another day–a day of reckoning that, although I know in my heart is soon to come, I am nonetheless powerless to prevent."

The doctoral candidate is no stranger to hardship. In March 1999, Edelstein called his part-time job at the hot-dog eatery Gray's Papaya "a vision of underpaid, overworked, meat-flinging degradation and brutality that I dare say would not be out of place within the pages of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle." Despite mounting student-loan debts, Edelstein quit the food-service job in August 1999 in "a vitriolic burst of invective and abuse rivaling the most impassioned deliverances of Alexander Pope."

Edelstein has also suffered "innumerable indignities" at the hands of his landlord, Randy Bosio, whom the tortured scholar described to his dissertation advisor as "a fetid, shambling, coin-rattling wraith of a man who brings to mind one of the more unsavory, shadow-dwelling denizens of Dickensian London." On other occasions, Edelstein has likened his landlord to one of the nightmarish "Mugwump" creatures from William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, claiming that Bosio's sole directive is "to attach himself to the flesh of the innocent and suck them dry."

Said Bosio: "Something about that kid just ain't right. Once, I let myself into his apartment when he wasn't home, just to fix the sink, and when he got back and found me there, he accused me of 'an Orwellian invasion of individual privacy,' whatever that meant."

Edelstein's woes were compounded last October, when his eight-month relationship with Meredith Astor, the 26-year-old daughter of prominent New York arts patrons James and Patricia Astor, ended in a devastating breakup, prompted by Meredith's shame over Edelstein's low social standing.

"It was your basic F. Scott Fitzgerald situation," said Edelstein officemate Howard Underwood, who started dating Astor shortly after the split. "After Meredith left him, he plunged into a turbulent maelstrom of drink and despair. Every night was a nonstop party, a denial-fueled attempt to escape the inevitable collapse of the artificial world he had created for himself, masking his inner desperation and decay under a superficial veneer of false, empty revelry."

"I had to start picking up some of his T.A. hours because he wasn't showing up for discussion section," said Underwood, who will marry Astor in June. "Pathetic, really, much like the eventual fall of the gilded, faux opulence of the Jazz Age."

"Meredith's WASP-y, socialite, upper-crust parents never approved of me," Edelstein said. "Tight-lipped, goyish, Edith Wharton archetypes. I know she never would have left me if it weren't for the mannered, insufferable manipulations of her high-society family. Hello? The novel of manners has long since been supplanted as a reflection of prevailing social mores, people!"

After enduring such "infernal, Dantean torments of the soul," Edelstein said the cockroach incident was "the last straw," prompting him to decide to leave Columbia.

"That's it. After staring down at the writhing legs of that foul, accursed insect, I felt the horror of the void permeating my being to its deepest core, and I realized I cannot go on here at Columbia," Edelstein told his mother during a long-distance collect call shortly after his run-in with the cockroach. "I'm transferring to the University of Mississippi. Flannery O'Connor says a good man is hard to find? Well, a good graduate program is hard to find! I know I said I'd never do it, and that if I had to live in a horrible redneck cesspool of a state like Mississippi, I'd become so estranged from my surroundings that I'd end up like that Eudora Welty character who lives at the post office, but I've had it with New York. I can't go on."

"I'm giving up. Do you hear me, O cold, unfeeling universe?" shouted Edelstein, standing atop his building's roof. "You've won, you impenetrable void of utter meaninglessness! You have destroyed me at last!"

"The horror... the horror..." he added.