Plenty of Canadian novels want to talk about how fucking cold it is in February, with bonus points if said cold is a metaphor for endurance; presumably, the kind of endurance required to withstand four years of high school English class discussing Canadian novels where it’s very fucking cold in February. However, not many feature an unnamed immigrant with delusions of being a cockroach. Also, not many of them are hilarious. See, that’s what kids ought to be reading.
Friends, pity the comic novel. For every Confederacy of Dunces, there are hundreds of versions of Atonement. This is not to knock Atonement, but to say that there are an awful lot melancholy books out there. Comparatively, there are very few funny ones. Substitute ‘melancholy’ for ‘introspective’ or ‘about people coming to terms with things’, and the gap widens.
And Cockroach very easily could have been a melancholy book. The titular cockroach is a Middle Eastern man stuck in a shrink’s office by court order after a botched suicide attempt. He isn’t sad; he’s duplicitous, goatish, and an unapologetic (and talented) thief with a tragic past, but he isn’t sad. He also isn’t introspective, nor is he coming to terms with things, despite the efforts of his shrink. He is, in fact, a shithead—but a loveable one.
“You are either a one or a zero,” he tells us, explaining his suicide attempt as an act of curiosity—a way to become a zero. His failure makes him a one—but this one-or-zero statement is a lie, or at least, an imprecise equivocation, because he frequently imagines himself as a cockroach. A cockroach isn’t a nothing, or a zero, of course, but it’s also the meanest, smallest, most insignificant creature the unnamed narrator can imagine. His world isn’t just made up of ones and zeros—it’s full of rich idiots besotted with his exoticness, hierarchies at work he can never hope to climb, and ridiculous fellow immigrants he despises for pretending to be higher on the totem pole than they actually are.
All these people, whom he hates or pities with varying degrees of intensity, are above the cockroach. However, cockroaches can exist almost unnoticed, go where they please, and will still be here at the end of civilization. Cockroaches cannot be destroyed—but nor can they be improved. Perhaps this is why our deeply troubled narrator spends so much time as a cockroach.
In saying that Cockroach is a comic novel, it ought to be clear by now that it’s a very black kind of comedy; there are no scintillating wits, wry twists, or happy endings here. But there’s also no schmaltzy Canadiana—Gary Shteyngart would be proud.
Dave Robson is the editor of DailyXY. He spends his time reading books, drinking Scotch, and smoking cigars.
During last year’s Canada Reads, panellist Charlotte Grey suggested that the eventual winner, Lisa Moore’s February, would be rejected by male readers due to the lack of a strong male protagonist. We disagreed with the assessment then, just as we disagree with the idea now that men will only read a certain kind of book or certain kind of character by default. That’s why, this year, we reviewed all five Canada Reads selections, operating under the assumption that men are more literate than Charlotte Grey is willing to consider. Also check our our reviews of The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden, Annabel, by Kathleen Winter, Half-Blood Blues, by Esti Edugyan, and The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood.