''IF you intend to have a long career in show business,'' Elvis Costello wrote in ''Unfaithful Music &  Disappearing Ink,'' his terrific memoir, ''it is necessary to drive people away from time to time, so they can remember why they miss you.''

It's been difficult to miss Ian McEwan. ''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.

''The Cockroach'' proposes a reverse Kafka : A cockroach wakes in the body of man. The man, it happens, is the prime minister of the United Kingdom.

His cabinet : They're most cockroaches in human form, too. So, probably, is the president of the United States, a Twitter-addled vulgarian. [Wasn't this all in an episode of ''Black Mirror'' ?]

These insects are here to sow human discord, under the guise of patriotism and phrases like ''blood and soil'' and the notion of making things great again, to ensure their own survival in the resulting rubble.

McEwan is hardly a dummy; he drives more than a few witty-ish moments from his promise. The best arrive early. Our antihero begins to understand that ''by a grotesque reversal his vulnerable flesh now lay outside his skeleton.'' The tongue inside his mouth, ''a slab of slippery meat,'' is revolting to him.

The prime minister recalls, in his previous form, encountering ''a small mountain of dung, still warm and faintly steaming. Any other time, he would have rejoiced. He regarded himself as something of a connoisseur.

He knew how to live well.'' The rest of this passage [''Who could mistake that nutty aroma, with hints of petroleum, banana skin and saddle soap''] would belong, were McEwan, a United States citizen, in an alternative version ''Best American Food Writing.''

Our human cockroach once lived beneath the Palace of Westminster, the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, so he's used to hearing Prime Minister's Questions, that excellent English tradition.

He recalls ''the opposition leader's shouted questions, the brilliant non sequitur replies, the festive jeers and clever imitations of sheep.''

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 [a boat involved in an international incident is called the Larkins] are plummy and tortured. By the end, homilies have arrived : ''It is not easy to Homo sapiens sapiens. Their desires are so often in contention with their intelligence.''

The sense one gets is of a driver with his hands at the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions on the steering wheel, with his hazard lights flashing. The best satire makes you fear for your safety and perhaps for your soul. Here the trip feels safe, sanitized, buckled in.

The Honor and Serving of the latest operational research on Great Books and Writers, continues. The World Students Society thanks author Dwight Garner.


Post a Comment

Grace A Comment!