The Cockroach

Ian McEwan (2019), Jonathan Cape, London.
100 pages, £7.99.  ISBN: 9781-52-911-2924.

The Cockroach

The book and author

I bought this book for two incongruent reasons.  First, I saw the author, Ian McEwan, being interviewed on the BBC TV Parliament channel – he seemed engaging and self-assured, the sort of man I'd like to meet.  Second, I needed something cheap to make up an Amazon order to get free delivery.  At £5.42 The Cockroach became the winner, twice over.

McEwan is the author of 18 books and is reckoned to be among ‘the 50 greatest British writers since 1945’ and on the current list of ‘the 100 most powerful people in British culture.’  His work has garnered worldwide critical acclaim, though I have read nothing of his, but I have heard of On Chesil Beach (2007), Atonement (2001) and Amsterdam (1998).

At just 100 pages and with big font meant even I, the ultimate slow reader, zipped through this little book – in fact it was the first book I have ever read, cover to cover, in a day.  And that day happened to be 31 October 2019.  You remember, the long-promised Brexit Day.  That fact will become significant later on.


The plot

Like most books, the opening sentence is key.  Here it is, ‘That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature.’  Translated that becomes, the prime minister has turned into a cockroach.  Thus, with a nod to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, McEwan begins his satirical tale of politics, skulduggery and wild imagination. 


As he lay in bed, the PM, ‘was beginning to understand that by a grotesque reversal his vulnerable flesh lay outside his skeleton.’  Yes, he could remember scurrying out of ‘the pleasantly decaying Palace of Westminster’ the night before back along the dangerous route to Number Ten avoiding being squashed by boot or bus.  Yet, ‘He remained, after all, his essential self.’  Indeed, at that morning’s Cabinet meeting all the other ministerial cockroaches were present.  In Jim’s coffee saucer was a tasty dying bluebottle.  Moments later the fly had flown – drat!  From now on the story vacillates between these two intriguing segments – human and insect.


However, all this blattodean (yes, that means cockroach-like) symbolism is not the core of the saga.  The real theme is Jim’s resolve, despite his personal weaknesses and political failures, to fight back with the balmiest of policies, namely that of radical Reversalism in order to counter the long-established but feeble strategies of the Clockwisers.  And here is the first of many of McEwan’s right-on satirical insights, when Jim is told, ‘The house is stalled.  The country’s tearing itself apart.  We had that ultra-Reversalist beheading a Clockwise MP in a supermarket.  A clockwise yob pouring milkshake over a high-profile Reversalist.’  Sounds like yester-year.  There is also talk of proroguing Parliament, hard Reversalism and the PM’s adviser who, ‘had a grey three-day beard and wore trainers and a black silk suit over a Superman T-shirt.’  This seems more like yester-month.  I had to check when this book was published – 27 September 2019.  And here is McEwan’s grand design.  It’s an allegory all about Brexit.  But that word is never mentioned, it never appears.  Yet the reader is cleverly left dangling, never quite sure what is fact and fiction.  And the puzzlement continues.  For instance, ex-chancellor George Osbourne is there for real, but so is the imaginary Archie Tupper, the US president as a thinly-veiled, Twitter-keen Donald Trump.


Reversalism defined

So what is Reversalism?  It is a sort of make-believe, but it has also been seriously proposed as an economic policy.  McEwan elaborates from page 25 onwards.  It is ‘a thought experiment, an after-dinner game, a joke.’  But it does have history starting with Joseph [correctly, Thomas] Mun and Josiah Child, two seventeenth-century economists.  McEwan describes it thus, ‘Let the money flow be reversed and the entire economic system even the nation itself, will be purified, purged of absurdities, waste and injustice.’ 

Then he provides concrete examples.  ‘At the end of a working week, an employee hands over money to the company for all the hours that she has toiled.  But when she goes to the shops, she is generously compensated at retail rates for every item she carries away.  She is forbidden by law to hoard cash.  The money she deposits in her bank at the end of a hard day in the shopping mall attracts high negative interest rates.  Before her savings are whittled away to nothing, she is therefore wise to go out and find, or train for, a more expensive job.  The better, and therefore more costly, the job she finds for herself, the harder she must shop to pay for it. The economy is stimulated, there are more skilled workers, everyone gains.’    Or, on page 47, ‘Our newly empowered police might pull over a recklessly speeding motorist and hand through the window two fifty-pound notes.  It will be that driver’s responsibility, in the face of possible criminal charges, to use that money to work and pay for more overtime, or find a slightly better job.’  Barmy?  Probably.  Thought-provoking?  Yes.


Reversalism enacted

Anyway, the once ‘lukewarm Clockwiser James Sams, the ‘compromise candidate’ for prime minister, turns into, after a referendum on reversing the money flow, the champion of Reversalism.  The financial experts predict economic catastrophe, ‘but on the street, the popular cry was lusty and heartfelt: get on with it!’  And Jim did.  ‘I’ve fixed Reversalism Day, R-Day, for the twenty-fifth of December.’  And, ‘the movement needs a song, a positive one.’  He plumps for Helen Shapiro’s Walking Back to Happiness.  Jim was now consumed by Reversalism.  ‘It looked like the Reversalism Bill would pass easily [through the House of Commons] with a margin of twenty votes or so.’ 


Meanwhile, a group of 40 MPs went on a jolly to attend one of Tupper’s conferences at his luxury hotel in Washington.  Back in the UK, the crucial vote was set for 19 December.  The gallivanting MPs had previously made pairing arrangements with opposition MPs so their absence would not alter the outcome.  Not so.  The pairing arrangement broke down.  Help!  The chief whip urgently recalled all 40 Washington Revellers.  Eventually, ‘the Bill was passed with a majority of twenty-seven votes.’  The Clockwisers and their press howled that the vote was ‘a constitutional scandal, a disgrace.’  The government was denounced for ‘filthy, shameless manoeuvrings.’


The next Cabinet meeting was convened behind a wastepaper bin where they all stood in a proud circle.  The PM was praised.  ‘The people had spoken. The genius of our party leader had got them over the line.  Their destiny was in their hands.  Reversalism was delivered!  No more dithering and delay.  Britain stood alone!’  The PM replied, ‘Our core belief remained steadfast: we always acted in our own best interests.  As our Latin name, blattodea, suggests, we are creatures that shun the light.’  And, ‘When that peculiar madness, Reversalism, makes the general human population poorer, which it must, we are bound to thrive.’  And, ‘It is not easy to be Homo sapiens sapiens.  Now, my friends, it is time to make our journey south.  To our beloved home!  Single file please.  Remember to turn left as you go out the door.’  So off they scuttled to the Palace of Westminster.


There are several other amusing sub-plots.  For example, the Roscoff Affair occurred when a French ship was accused of deliberately ramming an English fishing boat with the loss of all six trawlermen.  Of course, the French are essential players in any political satire.  They were instantly and roundly condemned, but, bien entendu, it embarrassingly turned out to have been an accident.  And there are the Jane Fish Affair and the Benedict St John Affair.  Enough – no spoilers here.

In conclusion

This sort of book is never on my reading list, but I enjoyed it, apparently more so than many of the professional reviewers, who thought it was a sub-standard piece of McEwan.  For me, the mixed metaphors, political intrigue, imaginative prose, and so on were enough to keep the pages turning.  McEwan certainly has his ears and eyes attuned to the political landscape – at times it read as though the last years at Westminster had been stage-managed by the author.  And McEwan writes so interestingly.  Of course, he has the aid of friendly literary proofreaders and sub-editors.  Nevertheless, he has a wonderful command of English vocabulary – unlike the style of many other writers I was quite unaware that he repeated words or phrases.


‘Read with the mind of Christ’, I often exhort audiences.  So where was the Christian influence here?  Nowhere.  Not a jot or a tittle.  It is morally vacuous.  But then McEwan has been a patron of both Dignity in Dying and Humanists UK.  The man is true to his colours.  For me, the book conveyed some of those worst aspects of unredeemed men and women – raw jealousy, lies, back-stabbing, obsequiousness, self-aggrandisement and anger.


And now, some biology.  Cockroaches belong to the order Blattodea, of which there are, perhaps not surprisingly, as many as 4,500 species worldwide.  They are one of the most despised groups of insects.  I’ve lived with ‘roaches’ in an apartment while studying at Penn State University.  The ‘best’ time to see them was at night.  If I got up, shuffled to the kitchen to grab a bowl of ice-cream from the fridge, turned on the light, there they would be, three or four little, well, some were as big as 2 or 3 inches long, scurrying beasties.  They are not nice.  They make an appropriate model for too many people, politicians included.


And finally, some song.  ‘La cucaracha’ is Spanish for ‘the cockroach’ and it is also the title of a traditional folk song.  Originally, it described a poor ‘roach’ that could not dance because it had lost a leg or two.  The song depicts a somewhat sad creature, like that Westminster sleazy variety.  More modern verses typically use the cockroach to provide satirical commentary on contemporary political problems and disputes.  Just like McEwan’s book.  Good title, Ian.

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