Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 28, 2020

The Cockroach, by Ian McEwan

Books comes into our lives in all sorts of ways: The Cockroach, if I keep it on my shelves, is always going to remind me of Australia’s 2020 horror bushfire season.  I don’t remember how I heard about a struggling bookshop called Candelo Books in Bega, NSW, but my heart went out to them and I rang them up and ordered some books.  I don’t imagine that my $65.68 made much difference in the overall scheme of things, but I am very pleased to see that they are still trading, even with COVID_19 adding to the woes of retailers all over the world.

And I’m also pleased that I have taken Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach off their hands because I suspect that whatever prospects there were for selling it in 2019, in post-Brexit 2020, only the most loyal of McEwan’s fans are likely to be interested in it.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a cockroach which morphs into a cynical populist prime minister of Britain.  Like Kafka’s infinitely more thoughtful Metamorphosis in which Gregor Samsa wakes one day to find he has inexplicably become ‘monstrous vermin’, so too McEwan’s Jim Sams initially struggles for control of his new body.  But, being clever but by no means profound, he doesn’t reflect on his life, his relationships, his responsibilities and his incapacity to fulfil them, as Gregor does.  He is the most powerful man in Britain, and though completely unfit for the job, he sets out to deliver to the British people the stupid transformation of their economy that they voted for.  The word ‘Brexit’ isn’t mentioned—the catastrophe cynically put in place by the prime minister who had called the referendum resigned immediately and was never heard of again—is about an economic system called Reversalism, in which employees pay to work, and are subsidised for consuming. The reverse flow of money offered the enticing prospect that the entire economic system, even the nation itself, [would] be purified, purged of absurdities, waste and injustice. 

In a brilliant coup, the Reversalist press managed to present their cause as a patriotic duty and a promise of national revival and purification: everything that was wrong with the country, including inequalities of wealth and opportunity, the north–south divide and stagnating wages, was caused by the direction of financial flow. If you loved your country and its people, you should upend the existing order. (p.29)

There’s really not much more to say.  For me, the satire wore thin well before the end of Part Two, and there are four parts, mercifully concluding at a hundred pages.

You will find many more enticing novellas over at Madame Bibliophile Recommends who is running her annual Novella a Day in May…

Author: Ian McEwan
Title: The Cockroach
Cover design by Susan Dean
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, (Penguin Random House UK), 2019
ISBN: 9781529112924
Source: personal library, purchased from Candelo Books, Bega NSW, $16.99

 


Responses

  1. Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors but, like you, I instantly thought of Kafka’s Metamorphosis which, IMHO, was an outstanding work. I imagine McEwan’s work suffers due to the inevitable comparisons.

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    • It’s not just that, it’s that Brexit is over and done, and we in Australia have other preoccupations right now. If it were a warning to beware of populist politicians and a complicit media, I think we’ve worked that out anyway…

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  2. Thanks, Lisa. I think I can let this go.

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    • *chuckle* That makes a change!

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      • Indeed it does 😊 And I’m grateful for I’ve picked up three more ‘must read’ books today. Sigh. So little restraint.🤔😁😂😊

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        • You know what’s been the worst thing for my Spendyitis? Not being able to check the library catalogue to see if they have a book. Even if I couldn’t reserve it during the lockdown, I would have liked to be able to see if they had it.

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  3. Reality is bad enough, I can’t imagine wanting to read a fictionalised version except perhaps an escapist utopia featuring women running the country, as in pure fantasy.

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    • What… another Maggie Thatcher?! Noooooo

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      • No I’m thinking futuristic not the past, where things improve not deteriorate.

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        • *chuckle*. I knew that, I was just teasing, except to make the point that gender is no indicator of having heart or soul.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve read a few McEwan but I’m not a fan, nor am I a fan of the look at me sort of writing which riffs off an important and loved book, without even adding anything new.

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    • It is surprising that an established writer like McEwan did it… it’s usually (with honourable exceptions) what you get from wannabe writers who can’t think of their own ideas.

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  5. Not a fan so no need to bother. There is so many more worthy of attention and thanks to your blog Lisa am well informed. As for rogues and vagabonds they come in both genders and many guises. We’re living through a ‘dark age’ and politics don’t seem to offer much by way of change. The political class is so depressing but alas ‘hope springs infernal’ Christina Stead’s words and nought to be done but endure.

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    • Vagabonds certainly do, I agree. Whatever fantasies we used to have about female politicians making politics more humane have vanished.

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  6. I used to love Ian McEwan’s work but he’s become an author who tries too much to be different and it doesn’t work for me. I can happily skip this one.

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    • It’s in the same vein as Nutshell, mildly amusing but only if you’re in the mood, and not saying anything particularly profound.
      But The Children Act, that was a better novel.

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      • I wasn’t all that enamoured with the Children Act even.. So wish he would write another one of the quality of Atonement

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        • Sometimes, there’s just the one book… that has to make up for all the others.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. You confirm what I’d read about this novella in reviews. I wasn’t tempted by it as a result, and will join others here in giving it a miss. He seems to have lost his touch a bit. Nothing wrong with a bit of political satire, but this looks lazily done, like a sort of party game that’s only amusing after a few drinks.

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    • I hear you.
      The only thing I could say in his defence is that it must be so dispiriting to be in post-Brexit UK, perhaps he’s lost his mojo…

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  8. Thank you for the mention Lisa! I don’t think this is for me – it sounds extremely clunky. I wish you an infinitely better experience with the next novella you read :-)

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  9. Thanks for the post, Lisa – I’m a long-time McEwan fan but the last few years have been kind of blah for him, imo. He’s trying too hard to be funny, relevant and innovative. It’s not working so well now. And I enjoyed hearing about that bookstore having hard times what with all your problems – (peeking at that I saw Jane Harper has a new one coming out – yay!)

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    • Yeah, maybe he’s just turning into a grumpy old man who thinks that he’s funny…

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  10. Whenever I’ve read McEwan I’ve enjoyed the book and I went through a bit of a binge so many years ago that I have to keep checking to see which of those early novels I’ve actually read. And I do really enjoy retellings : when they are acknowledged, they seem to be more acts of homage than rip-offs, and there are only so many “novel” ideas after all. Having said that, I’m not a massive Kafka fan either, having gotten to reading him perhaps years after I would have adored his style, so I might not appreciate this one for that reason either. Hopefully you enjoy your next novella more…there are plenty of wonderful and polished ones for sure!

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    • Ah, so there we differ. I love Kafka, many writers try to do absurdity but he gets it right, and he gets it right in important ways. Like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 does.

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  11. Looks like an interesting reversal of Kafka’s story :)

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    • *chuckle* Can we imagine Narendra Modi metamorphosing from a cockroach?

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  12. Um. Sounds a little heavy-handed for me….

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  13. The Cockroach like Metamorphosis, Atonement is like the Chamomile Lawn, McEwan irritates me. His books are off my radar. I know he polarizes people. Probably what makes him interesting too.

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