Ian McEwan’s Brexit Satire, ‘The Cockroach’, Leaves Little to the Imagination

With his latest, The Cockroach, the otherwise masterful British novelist Ian McEwan proves that too much cleverness can kill satire.

The Cockroach
Ian McEwan
October 2019

Good intentions and informed literary allusions are not always going to guarantee that a narrative gamble will pay off. Author Ian McEwan has spent over 40 years roaming and publishing — almost flawlessly — through dark gothic horror. See 1978’s The Cement Garden, a masterful tale of kidnapping and redemption; 1987’s The Child in Time, and a beautiful meditation on making mistakes that can never be taken back, 2001’s Atonement. Machines Like Me (2019) is a slightly flawed yet still fascinating novel about the point where our computerized replicants may (or may not) achieve sentient status. The titles have come quickly and (it seems) easily, over a dozen novels, film adaptations, short story collections, children’s books, plays, and other theatrical productions.

What we know about McEwan’s output, prodigious though it may be, is that the novels are usually brief and carefully plotted. Nothing unintended ever appears on the page. Nutshell (2016) re-tells Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of a fetus in utero. The reader cannot help but be drawn into the style, even if the results will not always make for a book one might eagerly revisit. A great stylist like McEwan probably understands the risks of alienating the popular literature audience with a book that proves too clever for its own good. The reason Nutshell worked so well is that McEwan committed to the strong premise and allowed it to grow through its brief length.

McEwan’s latest, The Cockroach is a novella that proposes a reverse on Franz Kafka’s classic tale. Consider The Metamorphosis, Kafka’s 1915 masterpiece in which unwitting salesman Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself transformed into the body of a huge insect. The premise is not much more than that, but Kafka works it like a master, making readers believe, for the moment, the impossible and understand the dread that might come if we lose our human corporeal essence, metaphorically, or simply wake to realize our lives mean little in the machinations of society. The purpose of Samsa’s literal new existence is only to pester humans for their blood, forage for food in waste, and die.

In The Cockroach, Jim Sams wakes one morning to find he’s been transformed from his previous incarnation into a “gigantic creature”. McEwan knows enough to not blatantly telegraph what Sams was in the past, and his opening premise is nicely rendered:

He lay still…An organ, a slab of slippery meat, lay squat and wet in his mouth…an immensity of teeth…everything he saw was oppressively colourful…This is so unfair, he told himself. I don’t deserve this.

Once the premise is introduced, however, the thrill gradually dissolves. The metaphor of a politician as a parasite on humanity is as subtle as a hammer. McEwan’s cockroach has merged his skills as a multi-legged pest with his newly acquired human form and found the perfect means through which to manifest it: life as the new Prime Minister of England. It’s effective, but still a very thin premise that becomes thinner with each page. It helps, though, that his entire support staff is also a collection of former cockroaches now in convincing human disguise:”

They were precisely his own. Bound by iron courage and the will to succeed. Inspired by an idea as pure and thrilling as blood and soil…This room, in this moment, was no place for the weak.”

In Part II, McEwan introduces “Reversalism”, the political movement in which he wants to embroil his fictional characters in his all too real England. It’s a version of Brexit, and it’s sold as ROC (Reversalism in One Country). McEwan spends his time here unsuccessfully trying to sell this concept, but it’s too important to stretch through this slim 100-page novella. It’s a brilliantly constructed world that deserved more space. Subtract the total of six blank pages between each of the four sections and it gets tougher to see something as substantial as it seems to think it is.

Part III includes a jab at Trump’s reaction to Brexit. After the UK vote in favor of Brexit, McEwan paints a picture of Trump’s usual Monday morning quarterbacking commentary “…the American President was awake early to head the [post-results] debate from his bed and demonstrate how it was done…It was poetry, smoothly combining density of meaning with fleet-footed liberation from detail.”

McEwan undermines what he seems to think is sharp and clever fearlessness by implying (but not following through) that Trump is also a cockroach in human form. What happens in the final third of this book is tantamount to smug self-satisfaction. There is commentary against Twitter and the tabloid press. It’s hardly groundbreaking and little more than shooting fish in a barrel. This is satire by rote, satire carefully choreographed and sanitized.

From the start, McEwan offers a foregone conclusion in The Cockroach. We see the end coming many miles before it arrives, and even his most fervent admirers (myself included) may feel frustrated. McEwan has never been at a loss when it comes to mastering whatever form and structure he chooses, but here he surrenders to his cleverness. A cockroach who once lived under the House of Commons and is aware of the way British politicians speak and suddenly takes human form as his nation’s Prime Minister. His entire Cabinet, also cockroaches, take human form and join him as his support staff.

As a novella surely to be included in an eventual multi-volume edition of McEwan’s collected works, The Cockroach will prove to at least be an interesting take of Brexit, Trump, and the vile nature of contemporary politicians on either side of the pond. As an individual book, it will more likely prove itself a minor effort. One can only hope McEwan’s next novel is more substantial and less enamored of its clever abilities than The Cockroach. In these times, readers deserve much better.

RATING 5 / 10
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