Smugly bugged by Brexit
Lionel Shriver reviews Ian McEwan’s ‘The Cockroach’
Full disclosure: this book was not written for the likes of Leaver me. Slight or simply slender, depending on the generosity of one’s disposition, the novella The Cockroach is Ian McEwan’s noble if somewhat last-minute effort to join the Remainer crusade to save Britain from itself. Because his purpose is plainly elucidated in the novella’s publicity insert, let’s allow the author to explain his motivation in his own words:
As the nation tears itself apart, constitutional norms are set aside, parliament is closed down so that the government cannot be challenged at a crucial time and ministers lie about it shamelessly in the old Soviet style, and when many Brexiters in high places seem to crave the economic catastrophe of no deal, and English nationalist extremists are attacking the police in Parliament Square, a writer is bound to ask what he or she can do. There’s only one answer: write. The Cockroach is a political satire in an old tradition. Mockery might be a therapeutic response, though it’s hardly a solution. But a reckless, self-harming, ugly and alien spirit has entered the minds of certain politicians and newspaper proprietors. They lie to their supporters. They express contempt for judges and the rule and norms of law. They seem to want to achieve their ends by means of chaos. What’s got into them? A cockroach or two, I suspect.
This may not be the space in which to debate which side in the ongoing Brexit brouhaha has, in their certainty about the justness and urgency of their cause, violated more legal norms, created more constitutional chaos, been more contemptuous of due process not to mention of democracy itself, or even made more of a noisy, newscast-obliterating spectacle for months on end in the vicinity of parliament. Ian McEwan is a novelist, this is a book review, and it behoves us to first assess his would-be emollient for the nation’s ills in literary terms.
The premise turns Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis on its head. Rather than a man waking up as a cockroach, a cockroach wakes up as a man. Not as just any man, but as Britain’s prime minister, Jim Sams (Kafka’s hapless six-legged salesman is named Gregor Samsa). Determined to ensure the success of “The Project”, the cabinet has also been infiltrated by insects in the guise of human beings.
Alluding to the backwards nature of a certain unmentionable faction in real-life Britain, the PM and his fellow creepy-crawlies are proud “Reversalists”, as opposed to “Clockwisers”. The Project, you’ll be relieved to know, is not to leave the European Union but to upend the rules of money.
Literarily, this scant novella has two virtues. One is the initial scene, in which Sams wakes in a soft, unprotected mammalian body he finds repulsive. For these few pages, the writing isn’t bad: “an organ, a slab of slippery meat, lay squat and wet in his mouth.” The erstwhile cockroach despairs of his “unmanageable head” and “unsegmented thorax”. Sams fondly reminisces about yesterday’s fresh pile of dung, of which he fancies himself as “something of a connoisseur”, with “hints of petroleum, banana skin and saddle soap”. However mildly beguiling, the opening is still inconsistent. Our cockroach knows what a telephone is, and what a handbasin is, but a toilet is “a specially prepared ceramic bowl”. As our protagonist morphs in no time into your standard conniving politician, subsequent sections sometimes seem to drop the entomological conceit altogether.
Virtue two: The Project displays a flicker of wit. As of Christmas Day, Britons will pay to work, and be paid to buy. Because purchases earn money, the rush to consume will prime the economy. Owing to the obvious shortcoming of this absurdist model — in which everyone would sensibly stop working and only shop — the Reversalists plan to penalise saving so severely that in no time the money evaporates, driving consumers to ever more expensive jobs just to get rid of the stuff. Lo, McEwan and I agree on something: the insanity of negative interest rates.
Okay, that’s it for being nice. It’s astonishing that a work so short by a writer of such high calibre (I’m ordinarily a huge fan) can still manage to be so dull. The prose seems hastily composed, and it’s seldom funny. The premise runs out of steam in short order. As I did, many readers will spot the ha-ha motivation of the cockroaches’ plan long before the end.
Whenever the story hews too perfectly to the newspaper, the text goes flat. “We had that ultra-Reversalist beheading a Clockwise MP in a supermarket. A Clockwise yob pouring milkshake over a high-profile Reversalist.” Where’s the added value in these near-perfect transmutations of the murder of Jo Cox and the milkshaking of Nigel Farage? What’s clever about converting the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn to Horace Crabbe, “himself an elderly Reversalist of the post-Leninist left”? On the other hand, when a whole subplot (whose details I’ll spare you) veers too far afield from the reality that the author would lampoon, the allegory seems irrelevant, and also goes flat.
So much of this novella is devoted to overt partisan grandstanding that it could easily be cut-and-pasted into one more indignant Guardian comment. Amongst Reversalists “there’s a general weariness. Creeping fear of the unknown. Anxiety about what they voted for, what they’ve unleashed.”
“Inspired by an idea as pure and thrilling as blood and soil”, Reversalists “embrace a mystical sense of nation, of an understanding as simple and as simply good and true as religious faith”. These misled troglodytes comprise the “working poor” who “had no stake in the status quo and nothing to lose”, as well as the old, who “by way of cognitive dimming, were nostalgically drawn to what they understood to be a proposal to turn back the clock”. The text cries, “How could a nation do this to itself? It was tragic. It was laughable. Surely the Greeks had a word for it, choosing to act in one’s very worst interests? Yes, they did. It was akrasia.” Doesn’t that sound like a column? If perhaps, by this point, one we might skip.
Literary merit aside, it’s difficult to divine the political purpose of The Project — that is, Ian McEwan’s project. Clearly Leave supporters are not expected to buy this glorified handbill. As for the Remaining readership, presumably a novella that portrays Brexiteers as cockroaches is intended to cultivate smugness, superiority, and self-righteousness. But Remainers already feel smug, superior, and self-righteous. Moreover, McEwan can’t be blind to the fact that this metaphor has been put to disreputable use more recently than the publication of The Metamorphosis in 1915. In Rwanda’s Hutu radio broadcasts of 1994, Tutsis were routinely dehumanised as “cockroaches”. Now, I’d hardly accuse McEwan of fomenting Leaver genocide, but the associations that attach to the smear are uniquely unpleasant.
In Pen in Hand, released earlier this year, Tim Parks recalls a recent London bookshop event at which the Romanian writer Claudiu Florian observed that Brexit “could very likely have a positive influence” on literature, “because of course writers were stimulated and inspired by conflict and upheaval. Dramatic events are good subject matter.” In the instance of one British luminary, Florian was wrong.
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