The Failure of Satire – The Cockroach by Ian McEwan

For the last couple of years I have come very close to reading 100 books in a single year.  This year I decided to commit to actual doing it.  In one of my intermittent attempts to restart this blog, I had the idea of logging each book here not just on Goodreads (see here for #1).

With this in mind, and back when libraries were actually open, I would often look for interesting books that were relatively short in the hopes that I might actually achieve my goal (is this cheating? You be the judge).  In one such visit I stumbled on The Cockroach by Ian McEwan:

That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature.

Jim Sams has undergone a metamorphosis. In his previous life he was ignored or loathed, but in his new incarnation he is the most powerful man in Britain – and it is his mission to carry out the will of the people. Nothing must get in his way: not the opposition, nor the dissenters within his own party. Not even the rules of parliamentary democracy.

With trademark intelligence, insight and scabrous humour, Ian McEwan pays tribute to Franz Kafka’s most famous work to engage with a world turned on its head.

Political satire inspired by classic literature?  Sounds like my kind of read. Just over 100 pages? Even better!

Except, it left me very much unsatisfied.

My lack of understanding of British politics might be a factor but I was unimpressed by this supposed masterpiece of satire. The concept-a reverse Kafka if you will-is intriguing, hence my picking it up at the library, and in many ways well done. But I think the problem is that if you don’t believe that Brexit is an on its face stupid, disastrous policy then the satire comes off not as comic genius but as another example of the mindset that leads to populist revolts. The satire of politics is amusing but the story is so short that if you don’t buy the concept of Brexit as the equivalent of “reversalism” then there is a low level annoyance running throughout. Maybe my politics got in the way on this one.

But in my defense comes the New York Times. Dwight Garner in his review gets to the same issue:

Once McEwan has established his premise, however, “The Cockroach” stalls. It devolves into self-satisfied, fish-in-barrel commentary about topics like Twitter and the tabloid press. The literary references (a boat involved in an international incident is called the Larkin) are plummy and tortured. By the end, homilies have arrived: “It is not easy to be Homo sapiens sapiens. Their desires are so often in contention with their intelligence.”

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.

[…]

The idea of writing “The Cockroach” probably seemed, in the shower one morning, like a good one. Later, after coffee, it might have occurred to McEwan that suggesting your opponents are cockroaches might be to drop down to their carpet level.

Fintan O’Toole, writing in The Guardian, gets at the issue that might have kept me from enjoying the book, pointing out that McEwan is not trying to persuade but to entertain those who already agree with him about Brexit:

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.

O’toole acknowledges that “Comparing one’s political opponents to cockroaches is a toxic metaphor with a nasty political history and it is hard to read McEwan’s novella without a degree of discomfort” but argues that the author pulls it off:

What keeps him going is his brilliant answer to the question of what could possibly be more absurd than Brexit. He is far too clever to try to compete directly with the real goings-on in Whitehall and Westminster. Instead, the great political project that is roiling Britain is as elaborately bonkers as those that Gulliver encounters on his third voyage: extracting sunlight from cucumbers or softening marble to make pillows. McEwan’s parallel universe version of Brexit is the cracked theory of Reversalism, in which the flow of money is reversed: workers have to pay their employers but in turn are paid for shopping.

[…]

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.

Admitting my lack of knowledge or experience with European politics or life, and my not having studied Brexit all that deeply, I am with Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times:

I have to say that even as someone who still regrets the outcome of the 2016 referendum, this work, with its central conceit that Brexit is literally the work of cockroaches infesting human bodies, reminded me of just what is wrong with the most tin-eared Remainers. No doubt there will be homes in the leafy suburbs of deepest Remainia where this work will be read with delight and celebrated for its humour and genius. For me, at least, it simply symbolised the self-righteous inability to understand the half of the country that does not have the innate good sense to agree with McEwan.

Which is sad really.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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