The Cockroach by Ian McEwan Book Review

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan (Review)

After reading the opening lines of Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach, I was immediately, and expectedly, reminded of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” The initial pages of the book are, broadly put, “Metamorphosis” inverted. However, even though Kafka readers will positively be entertained reading McEwan’s work, the story itself is not Kafkaesque — we do not really feel that we are in one of Kafka’s nightmares. Jim Sams, the main character of The Cockroach, is not ‘struck by the absurd,’ as Albert Camus would have put it. Moreover, the story’s aim is not to answer, “What would happen if a cockroach turns into a man?”  That’s merely the first 15 or so pages of the book. After that, The Cockroach crosses the perimeters of “The Metamorphosis” to become something else — a political satire.

There are significant differences between Jim Sams of The Cockroach and Gregor Samsa of “Metamorphosis,” but one of the differences is much more significant than the rest. When Gregor Samsa is metamorphosed into an insect, he is still the same person. He does not adopt the insect’s character, its mind, or its memories. On the other hand, when Jim Sams becomes human, he remembers who he was as a cockroach — he is still himself — but he also has access to the mind and memories of the human body he now pilots. But that’s not all. The story becomes more interesting (and frightening) when we discover that the cockroach who now controls the human body of Britain’s prime minister has a political agenda.

Jim Sams wants to transform Britain into a ‘Reversalist’ country. We are introduced to the concept of ‘Reversalism’ in the second chapter of the book. Concisely, it means reversing the money flow. “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 she carries away.” And Jim Sams does everything in his power to achieve that.

Overall, McEwan’s The Cockroach is a good book to read, whether you have read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” or not.  However, I think that the people who will enjoy this book most are the ones who are familiar with things like Donald Trump and his Twitter account, Brexit, the Me Too movement, et cetera.

The Performer

The feeling strikes you as soon as the play is over, as soon as the crowd starts applauding. It is the feeling of both mourning and despondency combined, a feeling that no matter how many times you have experienced before, you still go through it as if for the first time, each time. The sound of applause is the sound of rain on the man’s funeral day, the character you just left behind. You know you cannot (and if you can, you are not allowed to) take the character with you backstage or anywhere. Whatever is beyond the platform is a transcending universe that the fictional character (the role you played) cannot reach. Once you are aware of that the mourning begins.

The actor mourns over his character each time the lights go out and the curtains close. It is when the character dies and the nausea strikes you. This is like no other mourning you have ever heard of. It is the mourning of the soul over the body. For those few hours, your body represented him and not you.  You were the soul of a fictional character that was animate and breathing. Camus was right when he wrote that “the actor’s realm is that of the fleeting. Of all kinds of fame, it is known, his is the most ephemeral.” Something dies every time the lights go out.

Someone who is not familiar with such an art would think that each time the actor performs the same role again, the same fictional character will be resurrected. But it is not so, the character dies every night, and the soul is detached from the body every night for the first time.

The actor is also despondent. He always feels as though it was over too soon or that he could have given the character a better life. He becomes the mother who has failed her only child. It is with guilt and regret that he goes down the stairs leaving the stage. The actor is a usurper soul that infiltrates a body and fails to live up to it – always, every time. And there is nothing he can do about it – a sense of helplessness poisons him. Here, maybe, the actor is much like Sisyphus. The end of the play is the moment the rock rolls back down from the top of the mountain.

Driven by anxiety, it starts with the most ridiculous thing that is soon transformed into a masterpiece… but repeatedly the actor is faced with unfortunate events that deviate him (the character’s soul) from the path of the body (for a moment you are out of your character and your actual body and you see yourself as a third person), mistakes occur and the acting (the becoming) is never complete.

How nostalgic and miserable an actor must be, constantly in mourning, constantly suffering from failure.


Note: This was written in 2015 and was first published on World of Gauche, a blog that no longer exists today. I am publishing this now, as is, without editing it. I do not want to work on it or make an effort to “fix” it. Originally, it was a journal entry that I decided to share — and it still is. Dear reader, I hope you like it.