It’s probably unsurprising that while The Guardian hails Ian McEwan’s latest novella as a “comic triumph”, it is dismissed by The Telegraph as “an over-stretched dinner-party joke”.
Consisting of just under a hundred pages of embittered, Kafka-esque allegory, in which the Brexit mania of the current Tory leadership is transformed into the pheromonal impulses of a cabinet of metamorphosed insects, it is near impossible to read The Cockroach apolitically.
The satirical bite gluts itself on the current theatre of Westminster and Europe, but at times it seems at risk of being poisoned by its subject. The evident urgency to publish the novella while still relevant is reflected in an occasional clumsiness of style – it lacks the easy eloquence which normally characterises McEwan’s writing. It hasn’t escaped the risks of such swift composition (references to events of the past month suggest the editing process was severely truncated) and the suspicion is that McEwan’s personal resentment at times displaces his control over the prose. A propensity for paragraphs constructed almost exclusively of short, tautologous exclamatives gives it the flavour of an angry and sometimes tedious tirade.
Beyond superficial lapses in style, however, the satire is impeccably managed. Cleverly rendered, yet imprecise parallels ensure there is sufficient distance for the humour to be effective: Brexit is replaced by a bizarre economic policy, Reversalism, the implementation of which will mean money flows backwards; the character correspondent with Boris Johnson is more a metamorphic amalgamation of the past three Conservative leaders. No doubt any allegory closer to the reality of the situation would be too depressing to be comic. Its lack of ambition is also refreshing: this satire isn’t trying to direct or change anybody’s attitude towards Brexit; it’s simply a sympathetic expression of the fury and frustration shared by many in the country.
It is shrewdly observant of all elements of the situation: one of its funniest moments is the “fierce debate on Moldovan ice cream”, an example of the many highly pressing concerns which the EU is kept from by the insolubility of the British problem. As in Nutshell, McEwan balances the apparent absurdity of the fictional conceit with piercingly accurate and often hilarious cultural references and insights: from the manipulation of the Me Too movement to mockery of politicians’ post-truth rhetoric. The Cockroach is limited, but it’s fully aware of that fact.
If you’re going to read it, do so soon, although frankly, unless you share McEwan’s sentiments on the matter, you’re unlikely to enjoy it. McEwan is derisive, if not unsympathetic towards his supposed detractors and he leaves little room in the text for an alternative viewpoint. The Cockroach doesn’t offer the sort of commentary or insight that allows some satires to endure. However, it is comic relief in the darkest sense. McEwan seems to recognise the futility of his satirical weapon, but uses it nonetheless, not so much wounding Brexiteers, but taking a stab at populism and comforting Remainers, with a sense of solidarity and a pantomime of resistance. To appropriate a comment from Atonement, written of a political climate almost unrecognisable today, The Cockroach’s subject is “the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.”