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‘Ingenuine, and ultimately fails to convince’: The Cockroach review

ByMark Marchenko

Oct 21, 2019

“That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature.”

It just so happens that quoting the very first sentence of The Cockroach, brand new novella by Ian McEwan, is the best way to start a conversation about it. The satirical work of the ‘fiercely intellectual’ writer, as one conversant of mine characterised McEwan, that makes a claim to ridicule Brexit and concomitant events, provokes a certain sense of disgust if not because of the idea of reading it in the first place, but at least thanks to the illustration of a cockroach creeping across the lurid coloured background on the cover.

McEwan goes off the score right from the start. On page seven he equates the brain capability of a cockroach with the one of a human. On page 15, the author openly proclaims that cockroaches are smarter than prime ministers after all.

A couple of pages later readers learn the harsh truth: cockroaches are all over the parliament. In human form, if you hadn’t got the hint yet.

When it comes to Ian McEwan, we must give credit where credit is due — it takes courage to create a political satire inspired by ever-controversial ‘Brexit-events’ (as the author himself admitted), particularly one in the ambitiously creative form of an allegorical novella loosely based on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. But even though the act itself is worthy of respect, something about The Cockroach resembles a work written by a novice creative writing student, trying hard to hit all the points listed in his study-book, but in the end unable to create a story compelling enough to encourage the reader to get at least half of the way through.

The main point of satire is to deliver constructive social criticism in the most engaging way, which implicates the use of wit and humour. For a reference of masterfully written satirical prose you can always take one of Evelyn Waugh’s early novels, which employ a comparatively simple but attention-grasping narration, recognisable characters and clear allegories. It seems that The Cockroach, though containing several ingenious plot twists and timely jests, is ingenuine, and ultimately fails to convince. Readers are unfortunately left without the desire to push through the story to the end with the same sense of novelty and anticipation that they feel after reading its very first, and possibly best, sentence.


Image: Vintage Books (Penguin Random House)

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