Lena’s Brexlit Adventures: Episode 2
Book Review: The Cockroach by Ian McEwan
“Now, we don’t have time to unpack all of that.” – John Mulaney, comedian and absolute dreamboat
Listen. Hear me out. I know that a lot of the literature published on Brexit at this point is mostly just a money-grab, but I am naïve and trusting and I’ll throw my (limited supply of) money at pretty much anything that falls into the category of Brexlit. And so, when I woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, I found myself ordering a copy of The Cockroach by Ian McEwan. (Side-note: I had, in fact also changed into a monstrous vermin overnight. But that’s somehow the lesser of two evils here.) I’ve tried to squeeze a somewhat coherent review out of this book, but I’ve ended up with what can best be described as “halfhearted compilation of frustrated thoughts, slightly too strong opinions and semi-woke concerns”. I’m not sure whether any of this is going to make sense to anyone apart from myself, but luckily, I am the only person whose opinion I care about. The Cockroach is a Brexit satire in which the Prime Minister of the UK, Jim Sams, and a bunch of other politicians, apparently, switch bodies with a cockroach. The book follows the – now possessed by a cockroach (?) – prime minister, as he navigates a country which has recently been divided by a referendum on “reversing” the British economy. This notion is referred to as “Reversalism” and entails that people would get payed to shop and then in turn pay to work. Ever since the Reversalist Campaign had won the referendum, the country has been split into Clockwisers and Reversalists. All of this has culminated in an “ultra-Reversalist beheading a Clockwise MP in a supermarket” (McEwan 16) and a “clockwise yob pouring milkshake over a high-profile Reversalist” (McEwan 16). Sound familiar? (Editor’s Note: Sounds wild!) Whilst the pre-cockroach PM was far too lax regarding the result of the referendum, the cockroach version is going to implement Reversalism no matter the cost.
As you can probably tell by my less than enthusiastic summary of the book: I’m tired. I’m tired of many things, but right now I’m mostly tired of this book. In order to spice this review up a little bit (do I sound like a cool mum?), I’ve sprinkled in a couple of quotes from Unleashing Demons by Craig Oliver. Partially because I like the drama and irony of it all, but more so because I made myself read hundreds of pages of Oliver’s literal diary which includes riveting insights into Brexit, such as: “I am trying to have a healthy new year and ask for peppermint tea. Marge and Allison, who run the tiny canteen, look in a cupboard […]. No peppermint. I have chamomile and ginger, which tastes like diluted dust.” (Oliver 35) and I need to somehow make myself feel like it wasn’t for naught (no, I definitely don’t sound like a cool mum).
But let’s return to a similarly gripping read – and the actual subject of this article: The Cockroach. It’s pretty clear that the whole cockroach-metamorphosis spiel is meant to represent Boris Johnson replacing Theresa May as Prime Minister. It’s “pretty clear”, because the author isn’t the slightest bit subtle about it, which is a theme that weaves itself through the entirety of this (admittedly very short) book. Assumedly, since Brexit already seems like an over-the-top satirical version of politics, the author mostly sticks to real-life events surrounding Brexit and merely changes some of the details. I get that. I just don’t think it’s particularly clever or interesting. Despite most of the politicians in this story having been given different names, it’s usually clear who the author’s referring to: from US President Archie Tupper going on Twitter rants, to “Horace Crabbe, the leader of the opposition” (McEwan 30) who is completely useless at stopping the cockroach-PM from implementing his sinister Reversalist plans since he himself is “an elderly Reversalist of the post-Leninist left” (McEwan 30) (shout out to my man JC). There are a few exceptions, such as George Osborne (McEwan 28), where there aren’t any changes made to the politician’s name. On that note, let’s move on to the main section of this review:
Making it a point to use female pronouns (McEwan 25) instead of male ones to refer to the general public (they/them would’ve made more sense and included everyone but ok) and then just kind of writing the second female Prime Minister out of existence is an… interesting choice – let’s put it that way. Instead of Theresa May becoming PM after Cameron’s resignation, it’s a random, completely fictional man, whose physical description does not match Johnson’s appearance either, who then ends up being possessed by a cockroach. I’m not even trying to turn this into a hot feminist take, I just don’t quite understand the motivation behind this choice. Speaking of hot feminist takes, here’s another one: there was no need for that scene where a female Reversalist politician accuses one of the few non-corrupt politicians left of sexual harassment in order to get him fired. I would contest that “good” male politicians being unable to stop the rise of populism because women can just falsely accuse them of harassment since they are “always believed” is not one of the biggest issues we face. Like, at all. Considering that McEwan kept most of the story relatively close to reality (because reality is at this point already a parody of itself, blablabla), I do wonder whether he really thinks women are believed too often because statistics don’t actually back that up (x, x). Accordingly, lines such as “[o]n the opinion page a younger member of the Guardian staff decreed that the victim was not only always right, but had a right to be believed” (McEwan 78) and the fact that the Me Too movement is even named as one of the reasons as to why the accused male politician can be easily and unjustly fired (McEwan 79) strike me as rather out-of-touch. It appears that – at least in McEwan’s opinion – one of the new tools of populists is simply having the women amongst them accuse the men, who dare stand up to populism, of sexual harassment and nobody can do anything about it because we always believe women. Apparently, Me Too and Guardian journalists, who think that we need to listen to women when they speak up about harassment/rape, are paving the way for populism. I’m rolling my eyes as I’m writing this.
Moving on to the massive cockroach elephant in the room (nobody can stop me from making dad jokes): portraying political opponents as cockroaches! How do we feel about that? Judging by some of the other reviews I’ve read on this book: mostly not so great. I have a feeling that maybe Ian McEwan just doesn’t spend an unhealthy amount of time on the internet (good for him!), so he might have thought that this would be a cool, fun, creative premises for a book and make a point on the dangers of populism. But as someone who’s probably spent too much time on the internet (not good for me!), the whole “secret non-human evil forces controlling the world and possibly masquerading as human world leaders”-schtick is neither cool, nor fun, nor creative and is a bit too tainted by conspiracies to make for an insightful metaphor. Accordingly, I found the fact that a book which tells the story of politicians that really are cockroaches masquerading as people references the murder of Jo Cox (McEwan 16) quite tone-deaf and distasteful. Portraying people in power as something other than human is, however, not a new concept and did not originate on the internet, so I’m probably being too generous with the author here. (This happens to me a lot, since I’m a very generous person.) To be frank, if I want to read a semi-accurate retelling of the events leading up to Brexit with a “Those powerful politicians aren’t real people, they’re lizards in human-costumes!!”-twist, then there’s plenty of conspiracy sub-reddits that I can read instead and they’re not gonna cost me ten euros. (Editor’s Note: They’re gonna cost you just as many brain cells though.)
Even a rather positive review of The Cockroach published in the Guardian admits that the cockroach-politicians storyline “is dangerous terrain” (O’Toole), but concludes that “McEwan just about gets through it by stepping lightly and moving fast” (O’Toole). This review does, however, not elaborate on how exactly McEwan’s handling of the topic avoids slipping into something rather tasteless. I honestly wish it would have offered further explanation because I don’t see how McEwan was “stepping lightly and moving fast”. I think he had an idea that may have sounded like an entertaining short story on a political landscape that seems beyond parody, but it ended up translating poorly on paper.
Additionally, – and this is really just a personal preference – everything about this book is just a bit too in-your-face. I don’t believe that “art has to be subtle” and I don’t mind if the message is really obvious because at least that makes it more accessible. However, I do mind if it feels like the author is stood next to me as I’m reading the book going “See what I did there??”. This is best illustrated by the book’s final pages, in which all the points made in the story are reiterated and spelled out once again for the reader (McEwan 94-100). Furthermore, whilst satires don’t inherently have to be witty or funny (Greenberg 28-29), I would’ve still appreciated it if this one would’ve been. Especially since I did not get the feeling that The Cockroach was intended to be the kind of satire that is void of wit and humor.
I don’t want to end this on quite such a negative note, so I would like to add that the prose was honestly quite pleasant to read. That’s all I can really give this story though.
All in all, I would rate this book 1.5/5 Cockroaches.
Greenberg, Jonathan. The Cambridge Introduction to Satire. Cambridge University Press: 2019.
McEwan, Ian. The Cockroach. Jonathan Cape: 2019.
Oliver, Craig. Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit. Hodder & Stoughton: 2016.
O’Toole, Fintan. “The Cockroach by Ian McEwan review – a Brexit farce with legs.” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/07/the-cockroach-ian-mcewan-review. Accessed 16 October 2019.
Halfhearted cockroach illustrations by yours truly.
Lena was listening to the new Dermot Kennedy album and her own frustrated sighs whilst writing this article.