The Cockroach aims not to persuade or in any profound sense to critique. It is written to comfort and entertain those who already believe that the Brexit project is deranged. And even in that McEwan faces a formidable challenge. Brexit has such a camp, knowing, performative quality that it is almost impossible to inflate it any further. How do you make a show of people who are doing such a fabulous job of making a show of themselves? McEwan manages to do so with great style and comic panache.... McEwan elaborates this great scheme in prose so finely wrought that the plan seems to have some genuine gravity. And this in turn makes it very funny. He cannot hope to laugh the terrible reality of Brexit out of existence, but McEwan’s comic parable at least provides some relief from a political farce that has long gone beyond a joke.
Where to begin? Kafka’s fable works so beautifully because there is a single impossible event, and then a man’s mind is within a giant insect. We all know that feeling of helpless entrapment from experiences of illness. The impossibilities of McEwan’s situation don’t mean anything to us, and just keep coming. How are we to know what the insect mind thinks about? How does it know how to move or speak? How does it understand the complex political situation? We are quickly lost in a quagmire of unconvincing explanations. Wisely, McEwan soon drops the cockroach business and we are just in a satirical situation about an impossible economic fantasy, a little like Swift’s Laputans. Better not to have started it at all... I really hoped this was going to work. It’s vital that novelists are invested in current political realities; and the turmoil of feeling, of identity, of brutal terror that Brexit is churning up needs a report on the ground. McEwan has done this powerfully in the past — the shakiness of the Blairite mood in Saturday most memorably — and I’m sure he’ll do it properly in time, without cockroaches.
As a conceit, this might be considered mildly tickling at most, but it hints at Mc-Ewan’s openness to paradoxical lessons. While he believes firmly in reason, he also acknowledges that scientific discovery has furnished conundrums not soluble by recourse to empirical thinking. An emphasis on the role of the observer in the construction of reality, say, or a belief in multiple universes, is hardly continuous with talk of fact and evidence. So The Cockroach isn’t just a companion piece to Nutshell (2016), McEwan’s banal, hot-take-laden rewriting of Hamlet, but the latest instalment in his imaginative scrambling of English social history and of reality itself. McEwan has always been fascinated by the new physics and troubled by the question of how to reconcile the practice of humanist fiction to post-Newtonian models of space and time.
There is no doubting the sharpness of McEwan’s mind, nor his mastery of technical language (entomological and economic). But beneath the splashy concept what is there? Bewildered disbelief; condescending outrage; mirthful detachment. He seems most animated when he describes how thrilling it is to be a journalist breaking news. I sense that in recent years he has grown weary of all the fictional toil, the emotional labour that goes into character and plot, and would prefer to be dispatching thinkpieces about radical Islam, artificial intelligence, faith v science, Brexit.
The Cockroach, by contrast, is a thin book that feels even thinner. There are some nice jokes, such as the choice of the 1960s pop song Walkin’ Back to Happiness as a suitable reversalist anthem, but otherwise it’s hard to escape the conclusion that if a less famous author had offered this to their publisher it would have been swiftly squashed.
By the end of this short, occasionally elegant and no doubt cathartic fictional essay, McEwan has inadvertently given readers a fresh insight into the arrogance and contempt that liberal society feels towards those who have dared to defy it by voting for Brexit. For all the flourishes one would expect from a novelist of McEwan’s brilliance, this falls way short of his usual standard. There is little of the acuity and human insight of say, Saturday, his last heavily political novel, or even of Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. Instead, the work reads like a piece written in a blind fury... The descriptions of physical transformation are unsurprisingly excellent though he is not the first author to riff on Kafka’s classic. But as soon as he returns to the pure politics, the intelligence gives way to unfiltered and uninquisitive rage. What a shame. A cold-headed, forensic McEwan on Brexit would have been worth reading.
Announced only a fortnight ago, The Cockroach, a 100-page novella, is Ian McEwan’s second work of fiction to be published this year, after his novel about an intelligent android, Machines Like Me... The word “Brexit” does not appear in this book, however, an attempt to reassert the imaginative power of fiction over brute fact and the chaos of the news... McEwan has constructed a fable here to please all those who find it incomprehensible that anyone could support Brexit. For all his glorious fluency, he can’t empathise with such people himself. So he has designated them cockroaches. That’s what the Hutus called the Tutsis (“inyenzi”) to dehumanise them. It’s a term that brought Katie Hopkins into disgrace. The Cockroach is not a book to cast any light on our polarisation. It is, rather, a feeble attempt to make a joke of what is no joke. Still, that’s indicative in itself.
“That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature.” Ian McEwan’s enjoyable, cockeyed Brexit satire opens by tipping a gigantic wink to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a work it in no way resembles. The set up is that a cockroach wakes up in No 10 after a big night, finds it is a hungover and very Boris-like prime minister, and, once it gets used to the unpleasant feeling of having an internal skeleton and a fleshy tongue in its mouth, sets about steering the UK into a popularly acclaimed national disaster. The bug is helped by the intuitive discovery – something to do with the pheromonal cockroach hivemind, I guess – that most of the cabinet are also now secretly cockroaches...As satire, it may cheer and invigorate the admittedly sizable constituency that regards Brexit as being no less insane an idea than unilaterally reversing the laws of economics, and one that could plausibly have been hatched by a cabal of nefarious, murderous, lie‑spewing human cockroaches. But that falls into the heat rather than light department. All McEwan’s fluency is here, and much of his wit (though broad comedy has never been the centre of his talent) – but, like Jim Sams or Gregor Samsa, the end result is neither one thing nor the other.
McEwan has constructed a fable here to please all those who find it incomprehensible that anyone could support Brexit. For all his glorious fluency, he can’t empathise with such people himself. So he has designated them cockroaches. That’s what the Hutus called the Tutsis (“inyenzi”) to dehumanise them. It’s a term that brought Katie Hopkins into disgrace. The Cockroach is not a book to cast any light on our polarisation.
It is, rather, a feeble attempt to make a joke of what is no joke. Still, that’s indicative in itself.
It’s been difficult to miss Ian McEwan. “The Cockroach,” his satirical new Brexit novella, is his second book this year and his third in three years. “The Cockroach” is so toothless and wan that it may drive his readers away in long apocalyptic caravans. The young McEwan, the author of blacker-than-black little novels, the man who acquired the nickname “Ian Macabre,” would rather have gnawed off his own fingers than written it. At dark political and social moments, we need better, rougher magic than this...The sense one gets is of a driver with his hands at the 10 o’clock and two o’clock positions on the steering wheel, with his hazard lights flashing. The best satire makes you fear for your safety and perhaps your soul. Here the trip feels safe, sanitized, buckled-in.
McEwan is doubtless aiming for Swiftian satire, but the opening pages in which he gives us an insect-eye view of a journey across Whitehall is more Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, not least the scene in which he encounters a steaming pile of manure near Horse Guards Parade, or another in which he spots a dying bluebottle in a meeting and fantasises about eating it: “Barely alive or just deceased, it has a cheese flavour. Stilton, mostly.”... The Cockroach is a dinner-party joke strung out to 100 pages. It elicits a snigger here and there, but if you’re looking to howl with laughter or despair, just read the news.