It’s been difficult to miss Ian McEwan. The Cockroach, his satirical new Brexit novella, is his second book this year and his third in three years. The Cockroach is so toothless and wan that it may drive his readers away in long apocalyptic caravans. The young McEwan, the author of blacker-than-black little novels, the man who acquired the nickname 'Ian Macabre,' would rather have gnawed off his own fingers than written it. At dark political and social moments, we need better, rougher magic than this ... McEwan is hardly a dummy; he derives more than a few witty-ish moments from his premise. The best arrive early ... Once McEwan has established his premise, however, The Cockroach stalls. It devolves into self-satisfied, fish-in-barrel commentary about topics like Twitter and the tabloid press. The literary references...are plummy and tortured ... The idea of writing The Cockroach probably seemed, in the shower one morning, like a good one. Later, after coffee, it might have occurred to McEwan that suggesting your opponents are cockroaches might be to drop down to their carpet level.
Ian McEwan’s enjoyable, cockeyed Brexit satire opens by tipping a gigantic wink to Kafka’s Metamorphosis a work it in no way resembles ... The big problem is that it’s not clear at all how the Brexit spoof meshes with the cockroach-turned-human premise. Kafka doesn’t ask you to consider the how or the why of his scenario. McEwan can’t swerve it – and scatters unanswered but nagging questions as he goes. How does a cockroach remember the 1960s song 'Walking Back to Happiness'? Why does the transfiguration, which seems to be a baffling accident on the opening pages, end up looking like a worked-out plan by the cockroach hivemind in the closing ones? Were cockroaches behind it all along, even though the referendum had happened long before a cockroach woke up as the prime minister? As satire, it may cheer and invigorate the admittedly sizable constituency that regards Brexit as being no less insane an idea than unilaterally reversing the laws of economics, and one that could plausibly have been hatched by a cabal of nefarious, murderous, lie‑spewing human cockroaches. But that falls into the heat rather than light department. All McEwan’s fluency is here, and much of his wit...but, like Jim Sams or Gregor Samsa, the end result is neither one thing nor the other.
By the end of this short, occasionally elegant and no doubt cathartic fictional essay, McEwan has inadvertently given readers a fresh insight into the arrogance and contempt that liberal society feels towards those who have dared to defy it by voting for Brexit. For all the flourishes one would expect from a novelist of McEwan’s brilliance, this falls way short of his usual standard. There is little of the acuity and human insight of say, Saturday, his last heavily political novel, or even of Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. Instead, the work reads like a piece written in a blind fury ... No doubt there will be homes in the leafy suburbs of deepest Remainia where this work will be read with delight and celebrated for its humour and genius. For me, at least, it simply symbolised the self-righteous inability to understand the half of the country that does not have the innate good sense to agree with McEwan ... The descriptions of physical transformation are unsurprisingly excellent though [McEwan] is not the first author to riff on Kafka’s classic. But as soon as he returns to the pure politics, the intelligence gives way to unfiltered and uninquisitive rage. What a shame. A cold-headed, forensic McEwan on Brexit would have been worth reading.