Autumn by Ali Smith might well have taken the title of “the first Brexit novel” but, really, ever since the result in 2016, we’ve just been waiting for every British writer to churn out there own. Machines Like Me introduced us to Ian McEwan’s anger about the decision to take the UK out of the EU. In his alternate 80s timeline, British Prime Minister Tony Benn decides to take the UK out of the European Union without a second referendum. The writer hasn’t hidden his feelings about the current state of politics in this country so it was clear this wouldn’t be the last we heard about it. And, lo and behold, a few weeks ago it was announced that McEwan was set to release a surprise new novella. The work would be a political satire of “an old tradition”. Now, I’ve had an odd relationship with McEwan over my lifetime. When I was a teenage I read everything he wrote with glee. I loved his works. Enduring Love, Atonement, Saturday, and his short story collections were regularly recommended to everyone I could find. But, over the years, I’ve found myself less inclined to try out his new stuff. I loved On Chesil Beach but, until this year, that was the last recent book of his I opened. And then, Machines Like Me wasn’t anywhere near as good as I was hoping. Still, this was a novella and its mustard yellow. I do so love yellow things. I decided it was worth a try.
Ian McEwan’s new novella opens with a huge nod to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. A move that succeeds in raising your expectations for this Brexit-inspired political satire. The problem is, after the first few paragraphs, it becomes painfully clear that The Cockroach in no way resembles the work it seems so keen to ally itself with. McEwan attempts to flip the switch by opening with a cockroach waking up in the Prime Minister’s body. To add to the general confusion, Britain is at a political crossroads as the Tory government tries to implement a massive economic remodel that will plunge the whole country into financial instability. If you’re here for subtlety, then I suggest you walk away now.
With regards to the Kafka-inspired change, it really doesn’t add anything to the story. Kafka manages to play his scenario out with a certain realism but McEwan really doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. He clearly enjoys the idea of the switch and there are some great passages as the creature gets used to its new body. It just never really goes anywhere. I will say there is a certain Swfitian humour in the proposed policy that the Prime Minister, Jim Sams, is trying to introduce. Reversalism is, by far, the standout thing to come out of this novella. And it’s the thing that McEwan clearly has the most fun defining. You can see his wit shining through as he goes through is history.
Reversalism is the Brexit stand-in that sees the people of the UK vote to alter the cash-flow in their society. Instead of being paid for work and exchanging that money for goods, everything will be flipped. Now, people will be paid to shop and then legally obliged to use that money to pay to work. The belief being that employment will rise and the country can begin anew. As you’d expect, the country is divided by those who see the appeal of such a system, the Reversalists, and those who don’t, the Clockwise. There is rioting in the streets, in-party fighting, and much debate around the world. But, now he has the mind of a cockroach, Jim Sams is defiante that the economy with Reverse.
After the set-up, the novella gets a little clunky with its satire. There is some fun to be had in the way the writer creates fictional counterparts for key political figures. There’s the Dominic Cummings figure, a tweeting US President, and several references to the media’s influence on proceedings. The rhetoric that we’re so used to hearing is all present and correct and the toxic Parliamentary environment is all too real. McEwan even manages to create a completely credible scenario in which a French ship accidentally rams a British fishing boat. A move which offers the perfect distraction from problems the Prime Minister is dealing with and gives the public somewhere to focus their anger.
The problem is, the two ideas don’t gel. The cutting Brexit spoof and the Kafka pastiche never really seem to come together to form a cohesive narrative. There are some interesting ideas about pheromones and the hive mind but it never feels like a fully fleshed out idea. It’s as if McEwan has the idea “all politicians are cockroaches” and then didn’t really know how to work it out. Really the metamorphosis only raises more questions than it answers. Is it an accident or a planned takeover? How does the cockroach seemingly know nothing but then know specific historical events? It’s all a little too baffling.
And it doesn’t help that you really can’t get away from the idea that McEwan wrote this super quickly when he was full of anger. This isn’t a thoughtful or clever satire about the state of modern British politics. This is a temper tantrum from the type of Remoaner that Brexiters are always complaining about. As someone who did vote to remain in the EU, I understand McEwan’s frustration but I really don’t see how unsubtle works of literature like this are meant to help. It ends up attacking the wrong people and just adds more vitriol to the debate. There is an inescapable sense of self-righteousness with which McEwan presents the Referendum result as something so absurd.
Yes, reading this did give me a wicked kind of catharsis. Did I enjoy the comparison of Boris Johnson with a disgusting insect? Obviously. He’s a disgusting human being who thinks of nobody but himself. However, the fact that the Reversalism policy is as absurd as it is, means that McEwan isn’t just making Johnson and co. his targets. He is spelling out, in no uncertain terms, that he thinks the majority of voters in 2016, were stupid. This isn’t a clever and well-written satire. This is McEwan venting his anger. As a literary work, it doesn’t have great value and, as political satire, it doesn’t carry much weight. Yes, it will appeal to those as stubborn as the writer but people celebrating this novel will only be doing so for the message. McEwan’s writing is as elegant as ever but, as a story, The Cockroach is sadly lacking in grace.