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Ian McEwan, The Cockroach (New York: Anchor Books, 2019), 100pp.Ian McEwan, The Cockroach (New York: Anchor Books, 2019), 100pp.

In Franz Kafka's 1915 classic The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover that he has become an insect. Ian McEwan's novella inverts this formula.  On the very first page we learn that Jim Sams has experienced his own Kafkaesque metamorphosis—a cockroach has taken over his body and become a human being.

Jim Sams is the Prime Minister of Great Britain during the run-up to the Brexit debacle. At least he has his cabinet on his side, for it turns out that all of them, except for the foreign minister Benedict St. John (who will be dealt with mercilessly), are transformed cockroaches. Sams "recognized them instantly through their transparent, superficial human form. How eerily they resembled humans!" As fellow cockroaches in human bodies, Sams "understood and loved his colleagues and their values. They were precisely his own."

Sams and his cabinet are dedicated to a radical economic program called Reversalism, which used to be the lonely preserve of eccentrics and the butt of jokes among mainstream intellectuals. "But the idea, once embraced, presented itself to some as beautiful and simple." Just put the economy in reverse! If the nation could "let the money flow be reversed," any and every economic injustice, waste and absurdity would be purged. To take just one example: "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 that she carries away." The American president encourages Sams in his Reversalism, which is no surprise when we learn that he, too, is a cockroach in a human body.

McEwan's novella was published to coincide with one of the last of many deadlines for the Brexit negotiations, and I happened to read it just as a putative deal was reached in the last days of 2020. Do we need another book about Brexit?  Probably not, at least not for another five years, in order to see the real result. You could also argue that the buffoons of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump make for very easy satirical targets. Ditto for the acerbic wit about politics in general ("Such vicious, ruthless, heartless lying."). The intricacies of British politics will also be lost on many American readers. Nonetheless, in the hands of McEwan, this is highbrow humor at its best (and most depressing).

Dan Clendenin:

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