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“This novella is a work of fiction.  Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual cockroaches living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”  – Epigraph to this book.

cover_Before one reads even the first sentence of Chapter One, author Ian McEwan uses the introductory epigraph to clearly establish the satirical nature of this work.  Inspired by Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, an existential novel in which the main character, Gregor Samsa, finds himself gradually transformed from a human being into a cockroach, McEwan gives that concept a twist.  Here main character Jim Sams has experienced the reverse, starting out as a cockroach and becoming human.  This change has come suddenly.  After waking up in bed one morning, he sees that he now has fewer legs and, most “revolting,” he now feels a “slab of slippery meat…squat and wet in his mouth…[which] moved of its own accord to explore the vast cavern of his mouth.”  His color has changed, as has his vision, and his “vulnerable” flesh now lies outside his skeleton.  Just last night this new human had made a difficult trip in his previous body from the Palace of Westminster through the underground garage, the gutters, and across Parliament Square.  A political demonstration had been going on, complete with horse guards and police, but somehow he had avoided them, making his way from there to the bedroom of a residence for the rest of the night. Now, however, he remembers he is on an important, solitary mission.  When the phone beside the bed rings, he is barely able to move in his new body, and he misses the call, only to be greeted by a young woman at his door who says, “Prime Minister, it’s almost seven thirty.”  There is a Cabinet meeting scheduled for nine o’clock.

IanMcEwanWhat results is a satire of contemporary British politics which expands beyond those limits into some of the issues currently affecting other western countries, such as France and the US, in their dealings among themselves. The attitudes toward Brexit underlie most of the turmoil in London here, as conservatives are talking about a no-confidence vote in Prime Minister, Jim Sams. Sams, they believe, is not “Reversalist” enough, the “public mood” is “wobbling,” and the “country is tearing itself apart” in the conflict between the Clockwisers, mostly elitists who want to stay in the EU, and the Reversalists, conservatives who want to stick with Brexit and go their own route.  “Reversalism,” the reader learns, is a type of extreme Conservatism, which proponents believe will purify the nation and purge it of “absurdities, waste, and injustice” and result, eventually, in full employment.  Reversing what we have come to expect, all employees pay their companies for the hours they have worked each week.  When they go to the shops at the mall, however, they get paid back by cashiers for every item they buy.  Any money they deposit in the bank attracts high negative interest rates, therefore stimulating each worker to “go out and find, or at least train for, a more expensive job.…The economy is stimulated, there are more skilled workers, everyone gains.”

MP Jeremy Thorpe had, for many years, an illicit and often unconsented relationship with Norman Scott, and had planned his murder.

MP Jeremy Thorpe had, for many years, an illicit and often unconsentual relationship with Norman Scott, and had planned his murder.

Now, however, impatience has led to popular unrest. Complications have arisen involving international trade, banks, and clearing houses, and the Prime Minister has been delaying as long as he can by promising everything to everyone.  His problems with his Foreign secretary grow, a man who has been a thorn in his side for three years, and he considers murdering him, though “A perfect murder was not easily arranged from Downing Street.  One had been planned long ago from the House of Commons by that posturing top-hatted berk, Jeremy Thorpe,” and that was a disaster. Then Sams learns that the French have rammed a UK fishing boat for fishing illegally in French waters, which inspires him to plan how he will greet the coffins ceremonially, but before long, he is distracted and instead begins plans on how they will mark Reversal Day with a commemorative coin, create a national holiday, and create a happy reversal anthem, his favorite contender being “Walking Back to Happiness,” by Helen Shapiro.  He wants to unite and re-energize “our great country, not only making it great again, but making it the greatest place on earth.”  It is not surprising that Sams chooses this meme. Archie Tupper, the US President, has already given reversalism his approval.

Palace of Westminster, home of the UK Parliament

Palace of Westminster, home of the UK Parliament

The UK tension with France continues after a demonstration at the French Embassy, but Prime Minister Jim Sams is learning how to use Twitter and is now tweeting out insults against the French leader as a “loser” and “the least effective French President in living memory.”  He continues in his determination to get the US to reverse their own economy, and a meeting with the US attorney general shows the AG how, under reversalism, all US funds would “flow back up the system, from army, navy, and air force personnel, and all their suppliers and all the manufacturers, directly to the President.” Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars would belong to the President, legally.  Still, Sams’s government is unable to get things done, and once again, Sams has to reject the idea of murdering someone in his own cabinet.  Relations with the German chancellor have also deteriorated.  Now Sams wants to increase the price of German cars. He decides to have a major conference in the US at a hotel belonging to President Archie Tupper, “which would give the proceedings a certain intimacy,” an intimacy which leads to a conclusion appropriate to the subject.

At one point The Prime Mininister suggests adopting Helen Shapiro's "Walkin' Back to Happiness" as the national anthem for the reversalism.

At one point The Prime Mininister suggests adopting Helen Shapiro’s “Walkin’ Back to Happiness” as the national anthem for reversalism.

Unlike most satires, this one is not a unified or universal picture of the UK or the governments of France and the US.  Instead, author McEwan picks and chooses particular elements of recent history to make exaggerated, satiric comments on contemporary situations in an effort to break up the depressing mood which seems endemic to many western countries these days.  Writing primarily for the British market, he takes care not to seriously offend the large American book market by poking too sharply at our own political issues. He does, however, make references to a US President in several places, to the “astonishing reach of a presidential executive order” and the fact that the President is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.  At one point in a phone call he even makes reference to the President’s wife in a nickname which will sound familiar.  Bottom line:  If you, as a reader, are interested in seeing how the Brexit issue in the UK is truly a life-changing issue both for the government and the population, then this book is both enlightening and fun to read.  If you are an American who celebrates our existing US government policy and the presidency as it now operates, then you may want to avoid the peripheral satire here.

ALSO by Ian McEwan, reviewed here:  THE NUTSHELL.  Two earlier books from more than ten years ago are reviewed here:  SATURDAY     and    ATONEMENT

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on https://inews.co.uk/

MP Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott had a difficult relationship, which resulted in the attempted murder of Scott.  https://www.bbc.com

The Palace of Westminster is from https://upload.wikimedia.org/

Helen Shapiro’s “Walkin’ Back to Happiness,” suggested by Jim Sams as an anthem for the Reversalists, is on this album:  https://dutchcharts.nl/

Shapiro sings her song here:  https://www.youtube.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Humor, Satire, Absurdity, England, Brexit, Social and Political Issues.
Written by: Ian McEwan
Published by: Anchor Books, Penguin Random House
Date Published: 10/08/2019
ISBN: 978-0593082423
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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