June 2, 2020

Reading Uncertainly? “The Cockroach” by Ian McEwan

Cockroaches have successfully inhabited this earth for more than 300 million years and are like to continue to do so for millions more, so long as it exists. But what about their working relationship with Homo sapiens, we relative newcomers?

Ian McEwan, one of my favorite authors, suggests in this political satire that they may well take matters into their own hands (six each) in order to preserve their habitat. With the growing chaotic conditions in England, a group of cockroaches living in relative splendor in the bowels of the “pleasantly decaying” Palace of Westminster decide to act.

One, in particular, leaves “the floorboards, safety and solace among millions of its siblings” to make the treacherous crawl to Number 10 Downing Street, through a crack in the front door, up several flights of stairs and into the bedroom, where it (he) then takes over the body of and becomes the Prime Minister. Several of his mates also take over other government officials.

Their goal: make the United Kingdom (or what’s left if it) adopt a radical new economic policy called “Reversalism:” “Let the money flow be reversed and the entire economic system, even the nation itself, will be purified, purged of absurdities, waste and injustice.” It will be “forbidden by law to hoard cash.” “Bank deposits will attract high negative interest rates.” “The government sends out tax gifts to its workers.” You will pay an employer to take a job. You will be paid to take food and goods. In other words, spend!

The Prime Minister (appropriately named “Jim Sams” from Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, in Metamorphosis) then plans a telephone call to the President of the United States to try and persuade him to adopt this new economic policy. “It was 6 p.m. in Washington. The president would be busy watching television and might not appreciate the interruption.”

But Sams went ahead, background noise and all. The conversation was, as he reported, “all poetry, smoothly combining density of meaning with fleet-footed liberation from detail …  There was nothing more liberating than a closely knit sequence of lies.” The president is never named, but the PM is interrupted when he starts to ask, “How is Mel—“

At the end of this brief exposition, our cockroach leaves the body of the Prime Minister and crawls safely back to its compatriots at the Palace, secure in the knowledge that universal adoption of Reversalism will result in a dramatic reduction of the human species on this earth, thus assuring the continuity of cockroaches.

 A delightful, challenging, and worrisome satire.

Editor’s Note: “The Cockroach” by Ian McEwan is published by Anchor Books, New York 2019

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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