So much in fiction has happened during a single night’s sleep. Children have flown to Neverland. Dolls have twitched to life and gone to battle with mice. Grumpy men have woken up to embrace the spirit of Christmas and good men have morphed into giant scuttling insects, destined to roam their bedroom walls for the rest of their days. There is now one more scenario to add to the list: Jim Sams wakes up, after a restless night’s sleep, to discover that he has turned into the British prime minister. Given that he was an insect before, it’s got to count as an improving night’s literary slumber.
So what does Jim do with his newfound humanness and his political power? Does it change him? For good or for worse? Whatever the answers, the overnight transformation in Ian McEwan’s new novella, The Cockroach is a contemporary variation on a classic literary theme. For those who are even distantly familiar with the plot of Franz Kafka’s short story, The Metamorphosis – a travelling salesman wakes up as an insect – the politics of McEwan’s story are clear: to be the prime minister of this country now is to be a cockroach.
Disturbing metamorphoses, overnight or otherwise, have long ranged in fiction. But these are not the transformation tales we grow up reading. The story of metamorphosis in children’s fiction is almost always the story of hope. Frogs morph into princes. Cinders into Cinderella. Clark Kent into Superman. Alice shrinks and expands disturbingly in Wonderland before returning to original size just in time for dinner. All of this restores our faith in our own indomitable humanness. No matter what creature we might be turned into, rest assured we’ll be standing on terra firma on two human legs by the end of our adventure.
But in adult transformations, men and women are forced to live in the perpetual prison of their irreversible – and often hideous – new selves. So Homer’s sailors are turned to pigs by Circe and left to languish in their pigsties; Scylla, also in The Odyssey, goes from beautiful woman to sea monster and stays marooned in desolate waters, devouring any man who comes her way in rage. Sometimes these changed states are deserved (the pig-men for their sexual violation of Circe, according to Madeline Miller’s modern-day rewriting; Scylla for her sin of jealousy) but they don’t always follow a moral code of punishment or reward like the Hindu laws of reincarnation.
To go back to the beginning, Ovid’s epic poem, Metamorphoses, made the point that the universe was always in flux. Transformation was natural and constant. It was also evolutionary. In Ovid’s world, we were always heading upwards, towards becoming more divine, or in today’s parlance, we were on a journey to become the ‘best versions of ourselves.’
But a change in human form has not been nearly as comforting since Ovid. Stories of metamorphosis have tended to reveal our fears of a reverse evolution, and the moral code, if there is one, speaks of what has gone wrong in a society that conspires to turn us into the bestial or less-than-human.
“These are stories that have a hook in the public imagination,” says Andrew McMillan, an award-winning poet and playwright. “They seem to stay relevant because the concerns of our time are projected onto the transformations taking place.” McMillan has adapted Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, for the stage and located it in a gym. The metamorphosis now does not happen to a hidden portrait in the attic but to Dorian’s body itself. McMillan says he wanted to explore today’s ideal of gym-fit masculinity as well as body dysmorphia through Dorian’s physical transformation (with the help of his personal trainer): “We live in an age of Instagram so we can transform ourselves into an ideal self almost instantly on our phones. It’s a DIY job now. I wanted to ask the question ‘what happens to us when we can’t transform into our idealised version of ourselves?”
He thinks it is the interplay between the fear of becoming an insect, and the dream of becoming the ideal self, that gives these stories their purchase across the ages. We always aspire to better ourselves but at the same time we have a distant knowledge of our own impending deterioration, into old age, and death, and this – the most natural transformation of them all – is what Dorian Gray fears in Wilde’s original story.
McEwan is less concerned with questions of life and death and more with the man-made mess of contemporary society. He wrote his novella in just two months this summer and he spells out its connections to the political chaos around him in Brexit Britain: “As the nation tears itself apart, constitutional norms are set aside… A writer is bound to ask what he or she can do. There is only one answer: write.”
He follows a tradition set by political satirists such as Jonathan Swift, though Gulliver, in Gulliver’s Travels, does not wake up changed. He is washed up on the shores of such alien worlds that it seems as if he is the one who has transformed.
In his first voyage, he finds himself in Lilliput where he appears a giant among diminutive people. Sometimes, the world can be seen with greater clarity from a different perspective; Gulliver sees the treachery, malice and cruelty of the Lilliputians from his new height. He continues his voyage through imaginary worlds, though, of course, these are barely veiled metaphors for early 18th century Europe, as Swift saw it, in which governments and politicians behaved like brutes. By turning Gulliver into a giant observing tiny people (in Lilliput) and then a tiny person observing giants (in Brobdingnag), Swift makes it easier for us to see the way that political corruption can corrupt human nature too.
Gregor Samsa’s perspective is changed too in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. From his insect point of view, he sees his family and work life with unvarnished – and tragic – clarity. He finds that his family’s love is conditional: his devotion to his parents is not returned when he is no longer able to be the breadwinner. And he sees his employers, when they come to drag him to work, as the relentless slave-drivers that they are, forcing him onto a dehumanising treadmill of office labour.
For Gregor, there is a kind of liberation in change, even as a cockroach. His new form renders him “momentarily unfit for work” and embodies a refusenik spirit. In this he resembles the oddball anti-hero in Herman Melville’s short story, Bartleby, the Scrivener; Bartleby gets a white-collar job on Wall Street and promptly refuses to do any of the work his boss asks of him, simply repeating the same line: “I would prefer not to.” These men are staging extreme protests, of sorts, and they are as relatable and human as they are absurd; which of us has not felt, over our working lives, that the ‘system’ reduces us to less than we are?
There is feminist liberation in transformation too; it is there in the many obedient daughters in Angela Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories, who turn from humans into carnal, hairy creatures, and are freed from their former subservient female selves. Femininity is little more than skin-deep, Carter suggests, as these women shed their outer layers to show that gender is just like clothing, put on and taken off. It is there too in Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando, in which the titular male hero wakes up in the middle of the book as Lady Orlando and realises she feels just the same: “Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying that. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatsoever to alter their identity.”
Therein lies the nub of all transformation tales: however cockroach-like Gregor becomes, he retains his humanity – a love of music, a yearning for fine food and most importantly, a sense that there must be a way to live outside a system intent on diminishing him. And whatever biological transformation takes place for Lady Orlando, she is still Orlando.
Jim Sams remains an insect inside a human body, he realises, on seeing a cat and feeling the urge to climb the skirting boards in fear: “It was good to know that his brain, his mind, was much as it had always been. He remained, after all, his essential self.” There is some reassurance in this knowledge, that whatever we turn into on the outside, we always, until the end, remain ourselves.
*Andrew McMillan’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is touring across the UK from 15 October until 1st November 2019
*Ian McEwan’s novella, The Cockroach, is published by Jonathan Cape
All Photographs Getty Images, Proper Job Theatre Company, Adventure Pictures Limited