The Cockroach by Ian McEwan

In a spin on Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis,’ Booker-Prize winning author Ian McEwan has created a world in which a cockroach has transitioned into a man, and this man has the control of the British government. We meet the cockroach/human after he has already awakened in the body of what is the Prime Minister of Britain, and the creature has a “natural-born” ability to speak, tie his shoes, dress, walk, and talk. All is not normal inside his conscience, the frame with which we view much of this short novel, as the character is singularly bent on one issue obviously meant to allude to the current Brexit crisis unfolding now.

Perhaps the time has passed for satire to be effective and instead we are now living out the dreams (or nightmares) of satirists every day.

The plotline in the book centers around the absurd idea of “reversing” the flow of money – meaning you would have to pay to work, you would get money to buy things, a hotel would have to pay guests to stay, etc. The followers of Jim Sams, the cockroach in disguise, are known as “Reversalists” while their opponents are known collectively as “Clockwisers.” McEwan mirrors the political spectrum prevalent today in Britain – “Hard Reversalists” and “Soft Reversalists” are clearly meant to invoke the spirit of current British Hard and Soft Brexiters – and he exaggerates the the political maneuverings and logical fallacies of both parties, although the Brexiters/Reversalists undoubtedly take the brunt of the punishment. He is surrounded by many ministers that are also cockroaches/humans in disguise, and they are on the lookout for “closet Clockwisers” who look to subvert the actions of the Reversalists.

In a tone meant to besmirch the politicians looking for a hard Brexit and the citizens who voted narrowly for the measure, McEwan’s Reversalists concoct outrageous slogans and political strategies to undermine the Clockwise cause, with a dubious public sphere along for the ride. His goal is to highlight the absurdity of arguing for an economic platform under the guise of unyielding nationalistic impulses – all while noting the political effectiveness these calls for “patriotism” have on the general public. I will leave exactly how the policy would work (and its faux history) for the book, but needless to say is absurd as it sounds – a point McEwan would probably also attribute to a Boris Johnson imposed Brexit.

Those familiar with Kafka’s work will notice the similarities between the two works, especially in regard to the sheer disgust each respective transformed character has for their new bodies. For instance, McEwan’s cockroach-turned-human (named Jim Sams) is especially revolted by the “slab of slippery meat” in his mouth that can slide “across the immensity of his teeth,” – yet the characters can embrace their new bodies with relative ease once they are used to it. The Sams character is witty – he is more than capable at pushing his agenda through Parliament with all sorts of unsavory human behavior that most cockroaches would be envious to permanently obtain. Yet, there seems to always be the question of motive – why has this cockroach taken on a human disguise and to what end are Sams and others working?

Satires are meant to be parodies, yet unfortunately for McEwan, the real-life happenings in the UK (and the US) seem to outshine even the most outrageous of satiric prose. In another time and age such a work may have been more effective – as I was reading it many of the plot lines were all-to-familiar tropes used by political parties to enact their agendas. Late Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald once wrote “You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.” Perhaps the time has passed for satire to be effective and instead we are now living out the dreams (or nightmares) of satirists every day.

Perhaps the book is best looked at as not a satire, but a more pure moral tale, one in which blind agendas to benefit one subset of people are manufactured, packaged, and delivered to a populace that has fallen for the same tricks in the media, commercial, and industrial sectors. At one point in the book, Sams is attempting to maintain his belief in the program even as it seems doomed to fail. He begins to ask himself why he is so in love with the idea of Reversalism. His inner conscience gives him the answer: “Because. Because that’s what we’re doing. Because that’s what we believe in. Because that’s what the people said they wanted. Because I’ve come to the rescue. Because. That, ultimately was the only answer: because.

The book is a short, brisk read, although people who love current events, government, and literature will probably enjoy the read, even if just for the story-telling.


The Cockroach

by Ian McEwan

The author has written 18 books, including Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize.

Author: Rich Collins

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