Right, cards on the table. I uually love McEwan’s work and I voted Remain. Hearing that this rapidly written novella by the man himself was a satire on Brexit and that it followed the theme of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, it all signalled a great read.
It had been well promoted, with interviews allowing McEwan the chance to vent his spleen about how he has become so angry about recent political activity (or maybe non-activity) and the ridiculous government we were now saddled with here in the UK.
Plot. A cockroach heads out of the Palace of Westminster, narrowly avoiding the stamping feet of a pro/against Brexit rally and squeezes through the door of No 10 Downing Street. Next thing we know it is the following day and ‘that morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature.’ A cockroach has become the Prime Minister and is ruling a broken country with the hope to introduce the policy of Reversalism (i.e. the flow of money will be reversed by people giving money to do a job and getting things without payment). The PM sees this as a total success at whatever cost and also plans to stretch the idea internationally. A hardly disguised idiot US President of course gets on board with his right-wing supporters if a chance to make a buck is on offer. The PM is determined to carry out ‘the will of the people’. Nothing must get in his way:not the opposition or even his own Party dissenters. Even the usual rules of Parliamentary democracy are under threat.
Now without calling out McEwan, I was reminded of an early episode of Dr Who when Christopher Eccleston was doing a brilliant job as the Time Lord, when the alien Slitheen took over Parliament, because it soon becomes apparent that PM Sams isn’t the only ‘cockroach in the ointment’. His fellow Cabinet colleagues are also a nasty bunch of slime balls. The PM’s special adviser is soon dispatched when he doesn’t tow the line (will Boris ever do this??) and the underhand Gott as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (see Mr Gove) can’t be trusted either!
There are aspects of the novel which are clever enough, and the descriptions of the feelings of the cockroach trying to inhabit the human body both surreal and intriguing. The tension builds to an important vote with the Whips carrying on some underhand tactics (surely not!) but the whole thing is somewhat unconvincing with the political scenario. Perhaps he needed to add a decent politician (or butterfly), not taken over by egotistical inhuman greed, to win the day and make sure Britain was great again…
A disappointing personal read but McEwan can be sure it will sell. Leavers will hate it as it just reinforces the belief in white, liberal, London based elites who don’t ‘understand real people’. I suppose that’s the irony from McEwan – it takes a parasitic insect to try and do so.
Not sure book clubs will want to try it and I’d rather recommend Jonathan Coe’s take on the whole issue with Middle England for a satire on the whole Brexit issue.
Sorry Mr McEwan – please do better next time!
Philipa Coughlan 3/2
The Cockroach by Ian McEwan
Vintage 9781529112924 pbk Sep 2019