Ian McEwan’s new novella, written at a clip and published in time for the latest Brexit deadline, starts by inverting the set-up of Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis”, and then moves into the terrain of very narrowly topical satire: defiant parliament, recumbent cabinet, doltish US president, and so on. Though intended as a jeu d’esprit – if an exercise in hand-wringing can truly lay claim to that status – The Cockroach offers a more commanding display of its author’s strengths than Salman Rushdie’s similarly peeved though more outwardly hard-working Cervantes update, Quichotte. It even ends up generating one or two potent ideas, though admittedly not about populism or Europe.
In the opening pages, an insect resident in the Palace of Westminster, Jim Sams, wakes up to finds that he has become prime minister. As a writer, McEwan is nothing if not methodical, and he dutifully logs the relevant transformations. Jim now has only four limbs. In his mouth “a slab of slippery meat lay squat and wet”. His thorax has no segments. Because he no longer has a compound eye, everything appears “oppressively colourful”. His head is large, and his eyes can move. His skeleton is sheathed in flesh. The only remnant of his old brown shell is his slightly gingery hair.
There’s an origin myth of sorts. The previous night Jim had left his home, sticking as ever to the gutters. At some point he parted company with his customary self and came “under the influence of a greater, guiding force” – “the collective spirit”. Initially Jim seems to be merely a cockroach in human form and retains his erstwhile access to the collective “pheromonal unconscious”. But he soon realises that he understands concepts such as “Wales”.
Sams’s primary task as prime minister is to institute Reversalism – an economic policy, voted for in a referendum, which reverses the flow of money so that employees pay employers, cashiers pay customers. (Campaign slogan: “Turn the Money Around”.) The Reversalists argue that the Clockwisers have been holding Britain back. The 1940s are invoked as a precedent for standing apart and firm. Clockwisers throw milkshakes in protest, while ultra-Reversalists behead people. There’s talk of achieving “Reversalism in One Country”, mainly because no other country can see the virtues, or imagines how it might afford it. (The only trade deal so far achieved is with Saint Kitts and Nevis.) Guided by his inner cockroach, the prime minister becomes a Reversalist and realises that his colleagues, having undergone a similar process of parasitism, are now of the same mind.
For the first few chapters, McEwan’s project appears straightforward, even slightly in-your-face: one of the 20th century’s great writers helps us to comprehend one of the great political crises of the 21st.
But as you move through the book, it becomes less clear what Jim’s journey really has to do with either Kafka or Brexit. After the initial appalling wake-up, the “Metamorphosis” framework yields nothing except for the idea of a human consciousness having access to a group mind, and even this wanes as Jim loses contact with “the boundless resource of the oceanic pheromonal”. Meanwhile the plebiscite whose result the government must either institute or defy concerns a piece of arcane economic theorising with little resemblance to the tariff-related expenses and border complications of a no-deal scenario. As analogies go, you’d have to say that Reversalism-Brexit, or Reversalist-Brexiteer, is pretty far-fetched even once you factor in the licence extended by terms like “absurdist” and “Swiftian”. If the idea for The Cockroach struck McEwan with the force of revelation, it was a Eureka! moment that came with reams of small print and sub-clauses.
But while the novella taken on its own terms provides fairly scant pleasures, it casts light on a central strain of this writer’s work: his engagement with scientific thought. At one point, ideas of progress or reaction are allied to questions about the direction of time in its broadest sense. The narrator offers a brief digression on Reversalism and the laws of physics, all but one of which state that phenomena may run backwards as well as forwards. The exception, the second law of thermodynamics, is invoked by the EU to suggest that time can runs in one direction only, and that money should do the same. A theoretical physicist comes to Brussels to share “some interesting equations”.
As a conceit, this might be considered mildly tickling at most, but it hints at Mc-Ewan’s openness to paradoxical lessons. While he believes firmly in reason, he also acknowledges that scientific discovery has furnished conundrums not soluble by recourse to empirical thinking. An emphasis on the role of the observer in the construction of reality, say, or a belief in multiple universes, is hardly continuous with talk of fact and evidence. So The Cockroach isn’t just a companion piece to Nutshell (2016), McEwan’s banal, hot-take-laden rewriting of Hamlet, but the latest instalment in his imaginative scrambling of English social history and of reality itself. McEwan has always been fascinated by the new physics and troubled by the question of how to reconcile the practice of humanist fiction to post-Newtonian models of space and time.
His most travelled route has been the idea of an alternative now or then, as in the tweaked versions of the 1980s presented in The Child in Time (1987) – a work, like The Cockroach, that portrays politicians as animals (the “reptilian Lord Parmenter” with his “feathery” arms and “slow-loris pronouncements”) – and more recently, in the fertile but unkempt Machines Like Me.
That book wasn’t only offering a bald counterfactual: what if the computer scientist Alan Turing had decided not to kill himself and survived into the modern age? McEwan’s cosmology proved far more chaotic – obscurely causative, wantonly divergent from the historical record. When the narrator calls the present “the frailest of improbable constructs”, he isn’t just referring to man-made ideas such as probability or chance. He’s also touching on the possibilities imagined by physical law. According to the theorists with whom McEwan became preoccupied, notably David Bohm, the author of Wholeness and the Implicate Order, the vision of linear, singular time recognised by the human mind, and promoted by most novels, including most Ian McEwan novels, is a convenient myth, a Newtonian fiction.
You can find a sidelong version of Mc-Ewan’s speculative habit even in a novel like Atonement, where an iteration of reality is granted meaningful existence despite having not come to pass. McEwan depicted the figure of the novelist, in the form of Briony Tallis, as akin to the physicist, or at least an agent of the physicist’s theories. Thanks to Briony’s intervention, Robbie both dies at Dunkirk and survives to marry Cecilia in London.
The Cockroach seems to belong more squarely in the realm of fantasy or magic realism. But McEwan still finds room, amid all the Hansard send-ups and diplomatic silliness, to allude to more troubling physical-philosophical quandaries, while positing an alternative history of economic thought that culminates in a wayward version of our present.
We’re told, for instance, that Reversalism was discussed at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, yet despite the widespread changes, a man called George Osborne – a vocal Clockwiser – served as a recent chancellor. Reason and randomness live cheek by jowl. If the book cannot be considered any kind of addition to the oeuvre, it is at the very least a coda to more substantive ventures, and another clue in the ongoing quest to understand what really matters to McEwan.
Jonathan Cape, 100pp, £7.99