In the two decades since Atonement sold a trillion copies and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Ian McEwan has released a string of novels (Saturday, Sweet Tooth, Nutshell, and several others) that consider that most unfashionable of subjects, the achievements of Western civilization. For his trouble, McEwan has been accused of exhibiting “a disturbing tendency towards mellowness” (fellow author John Banville) and of being “the only living link to New Labour” (The New Republic, in the course of explaining why McEwan will never win the Nobel Prize). Though the author’s sales have remained brisk and his prose as sumptuous as ever, both his focus and his audience have measurably narrowed in his late career. Whereas McEwan was, for a moment, the king of the epic, he has since been content to produce witty and urbane novels that wed a graduate-school vocabulary to an innate distrust of progressivism’s destructive impulses. He has, in other words, been writing for people exactly like me, which is one of the reasons why the utter failure of his new book is so disappointing.
At ninety-nine-and-a-half postcard-sized pages, The Cockroach is a mere wisp of a novel. Yet the complexity of its conceit — anti-Brexit satire in the style of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis — belies the paltriness of its word count. Like its German progenitor, The Cockroach opens in a bedroom, where the title insect awakens (from “uneasy dreams,” inevitably) to discover that he has been transformed into the prime minister of Great Britain, Jim Sams. Sensing that his transfiguration is part of an important mission, Sams convenes his Cabinet, only to realize upon doing so that nearly all of those assembled are a “band of [his] brothers and sisters” — a “little swarm of the nation’s best, come to inhabit and embolden a faltering leadership.”
The insects’ project — a fictional Brexit stand-in whose pursuit will turn Sams from a meek Theresa May into a roaring Boris Johnson — is “Reversalism,” a willfully absurd economic arrangement whereby the nation’s money flow is flip-flopped. “At the end of a working week,” McEwan explains, “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.” Confusing? Idiotic? An affront to common sense and basic economic principles? Yes to all of the above. And therein lies the problem. For McEwan, who admitted in an interview last month that “everyone [he] know[s] . . . is at a point of total despair” over Britain’s prospective divorce from the European Union, Reversalism and Brexit are one. Both are ludicrous; both spring from the passing fancy of an unthinking majority; both, crucially, “lift beyond mere reason to embrace a mystical sense of nation.” So dismissive, in fact, is McEwan of his Brexiteering opponents that The Cockroach ignores their motives altogether. In a late scene in which Sams encounters a character clearly meant to represent Angela Merkel, the German chancellor demands to know why the PM is “tearing [his] nation apart.” “Because,” Sams thinks to himself. “Because that’s what we’re doing. Because that’s what we believe in. Because that’s what we said we’d do. Because that’s what people said they wanted. Because I’ve come to the rescue. Because. That, ultimately, was the only answer: because.”
Except that “because” isn’t the answer at all. In the novel’s concluding pages (can one spoil a ridiculous and smallminded fable?), McEwan finally delivers his punchline. Whenever “darkness” is “predominant” in humans, cockroaches thrive. “Where they have embraced poverty, filth, squalor,” Sams tells his colleagues, “we have grown in strength.” Reversalism, far from being the misguided hobbyhorse of a patriotic citizenry, is revealed to be the malicious plot of those who would feast — literally — on human misery. Needless to say, this is far worse than the political nihilism Sams comes close to voicing in his German counterpart’s office. Yet unless McEwan really means to suggest that his countrymen on the Brexiting right are evil, the gesture simply lacks analogical power. Boris Johnson is leading the U.K. out of Europe because a broken, immiserated, and solitary Britain would suit him? Not bloody likely.
What, then, can McEwan be thinking? In part, the answer may be that the author is suffering from what CapX contributor James Snell has called the “educated incomprehension” of “the literary class” concerning Brexit. Or perhaps McEwan understands Euroskepticism perfectly but despises it. My own suspicion is that the author and the Brexit crowd are in broad agreement about ends but locked in mortal combat concerning means. McEwan himself has written that “the cathedrals, the parliaments, the paintings, the courts of law, the libraries and the labs” of Western civilization are “far too precious to pull down.” For Brexiteers, it is rule from Brussels and the attending immigration quotas that threaten those accomplishments. For McEwan, it is Brexit itself. And never the twain shall meet.
Without question, The Cockroach has its moments. The prose is fluid and beautiful. The pacing is superb, as is McEwan’s take on a certain American president (who hilariously refers to Sams’s economic project as “Revengelism”). Intriguingly, the EU itself comes in for a bit of well-deserved mockery in the novel, as when the Strasbourg Parliament must “decamp to Brussels” and “enjoy a decent lunch” before discussions of Reversalism can resume. So, for that matter, does the Me Too movement, by which Sams destroys an innocent, if inconveniently recalcitrant, colleague.
Yet despite these virtues, the book that contains them is sour, ungenerous, and ignorant. It says little and means less, and in assuming the worst of its opponents, it wildly overshoots its mark. Though Ian McEwan has a legitimate claim to be the best novelist of the young 21st century, it’s probably best if we all pretend that this Cockroach never crawled in.