Cowboys, Cockroaches, Capital: Reading Rawi Hage’s Cockroach as a Neo-Western

Essay by Tate Kaufman

Art by Aiza Bragg

The Cowboy exits through a door frame, the faint impression of his spurs imprinting on the desert floor, justice served. The Cockroach slinks through a kitchen drain, smudges of dirt left in place of his scuttling feet, justice wanted. Literature of the American West is armed with a special relationship with the (potentially) violent outsider, who serves as an icon of rugged individualism. The extralegal protector performs an important function within the Western Liberal Imagination: he is positioned as an enforcer of the social contract, one who acts to ensure the bounds of liberty are neither overstepped nor tightly confined, and his capacity for reactive violence makes possible safe conduct of capitalist enterprise and frontier trade. Updated for a global neoliberal context, Rawi Hage’s Cockroach integrates and subverts Western tropes through a migratory lens, using a great degree of intertextuality to probe the interplay between masculinity, violence, and the journey west in a contemporary context. Through analyzing Cockroach as a text of the Western genre, the interactions between migration, masculinity, and global capitalism illuminate the moral deterioration of existing power structures, and provide insight as to the development of a potentially dangerous, yet possibly necessary neo-cowboy. 

The Western genre is not necessarily defined by the setting of the wild west, but rather its socio-political aspirations, and the principles derived from its existence. It’s no small coincidence that when Malcolm Gladwell appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience, a bastion of male discourse, he chose to discuss his theory of the Western, Eastern, Northern, and Southern genres. Each genre, he explains, describes a separate dynamic between law and criminality relative to the general regional culture from which it is derived. A Western, he says, is “a world in which there is no law and order, and a man shows up and imposes law and order on the territory” (“Malcolm Gladwell’s Mind-Blowing Theory” 3:52). However, as he explains further in an article for The New Yorker, the agenda of the Western operates relative to the degree of governance present in the current cultural moment. Whereas “the traditional Western was a fantasy about lawfulness… a longing for order…. Our contemporary fantasy is about lawlessness: about what would happen if the institutions of civility melted away” (Gladwell). 

Cockroach is a novel which falls into the contemporary category –  the international system has discarded the rule of law, favouring profit instead, leaving characters like the Narrator, Shohreh and Majeed to reminisce about a world in which power systems may crumble, so that they may attain a truer form of justice. As Hagelin and Silverman discuss in their study of masculinity in the neo-western TV show Justified, “hypermasculinity and vigilantism are conjoined” in the Western through the male protagonist, who attempts to demonstrate that “the state needs a greater commitment to unaccountable violence for it is only through the rampages of toxic masculinity that justice can be served” (“The Female Antihero and Police Power in FX’s Justified” 852). They argue, however, that this assertion can be undone when examining “the antihero’s complicity with the state forces he supposedly rises above, [and] the extent to which his extra-legal activity is aimed at maintaining uneven power relations rather than creating a more just society” (853). Cockroach’s Narrator is thus, in some sense, the perfect neo-western hero—he appears willing to exercise unaccountable violence, but is not beholden to, and is in fact positioned against the broader forces of the state. The Narrator’s ability to inhabit this role can be seen through the plot he and Shohreh conduct to murder Shaheed, a man who “works for the government” (Hage 262) and has achieved high status in the western world, despite his prior brutal treatment of an imprisoned Shohreh.

The polar constructs of Shaheed and the Narrator parallel Western figures of the outlaw and the baron, serving in Cockroach to explore contemporary notions of transnationality.  The journey west adopts two contradictory utilities in this context: mobility provides as much an opportunity for refuge and flight as it does for conquest and power consolidation. In one of the more obvious moments of Western trope within the novel, the Narrator is relayed a creation myth by an Indigenous man. As the man describes, at the time of creation “everything was available… [and] kept in good numbers” (292) within the natural world until the “curious and hungry” coyote “came to this land on a large ship” (293). After the Coyote is able to “steal” sacred cultural artifacts, he disrupts the natural order ensuring that insects “covered the land and ate everything” (293). This creation myth, while introducing the trope of the noble savage to the text, simultaneously provides a framework for understanding Cockroach’s commentary on colonialism and the Narrator’s complicity in it. Despite being a settler himself, the Narrator expresses deep anger at the colonial system as he asks “what land is not stolen, what seat is not claimed, what container is not the product of theft and destruction? We are all coyotes in this land” (272). Indeed, from this initial perspective the Narrator is located alongside figures like Shaheed and European-Canadians as one of many colonizers. He is not a coyote, however, but rather a cockroach.  While being an “Insect” means the Narrator is “free… in a sense” to be “more invisible” (207), and thus impervious to accusations of colonial ambition, he nonetheless feels “filled with greed” (228) and is “afraid [he] will become an invader who would make little boys hunger”; that “[his] instincts [will] make the best of [him]” (210). By expressing a reluctant participation in the colonial project, the Narrator makes it clear he is ashamed of any emotions which drive him to exceed his “need” (243). His journey west has been for survival, not conquest.

  The Narrator’s conversations with Majeed reveal the way in which the identities of settler and victim can overlap in a system of global colonial capitalism. As Majeed explains, “Montreal, this happy, romantic city, has an ugly side… one of the largest military-industrial complexes in North America is right here in this town” (281). The west occupies stolen land so that it “prospers” (281) from the production of war, which in turn displaces people like Majeed and the Narrator, leaving them no option other than to settle in a colonized locale. Just like the insects of the creation myth, they have been forced to consume what is not theirs through the disruption of the natural order by a thieving colonial body. Furthermore, Majeed’s view that Westerners “do not want democracy [in the Eastern world]… [because] it is easier for them to deal with dictators… in the countries we come from” (223-24) calls into question the authenticity of the neoliberal apparatus of capitalism and human rights which nations like Canada claim to support. So long as western power can be stably and peacefully (on its front) maintained through exercises of profit, the achievement of global human rights is secondary, if considered at all. 

Early in the novel, the exchange of the “sinful weight of a few coins sealed with idolatrous images” (8) for a magazine detailing an end times narrative reflects the Narrator’s insight on the hollowness of the neoliberal promise. The images and symbols presented on the coins are false idols, facades which grant an appetizing symbolic weight to the true nature of monetary transactions, in which the value of the coin is derived from its nation’s exploitative capacity. By performing this transaction, the Narrator forsakes the structure of global capitalism in favor of an apocalyptic vision from which “only cockroaches shall survive to rule the earth” (7). In this way, the Narrator proves to be a reluctant accelerationist: his only means by which to revolt involve removing the coyote, and allowing insects to overrun the land.  The erasure of order through a rapture event then provides the conditions for the melting away of civility and return to anarchical freedom as described by Gladwell. As the vigilante figure which sparks that event, alongside his posse of friends, the Narrator is then positioned as a figure of neo-Western saviorism. The new cowboy. 

Inhabiting this role, however, requires a degree of masculine capacity difficult to achieve for disenfranchised people such as the Narrator. Before analyzing the Narrator’s masculinity within Cockroach, it is important to assess its intertextuality and the ways in which Hage borrows his discourse on masculinity directly from another neo-western, Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver. Taxi Driver follows an unstable and socially invisible protagonist named Travis Bickle as he seeks to find meaning and notoriety through fantasies of violence, whether political assassination, or in the defense of a young prostitute. Indeed, Cockroach draws much of its framing of masculine desire directly from Taxi Driver, from the Narrator’s voyeuristic visit to the pornography theatre “Cinema Lucy” (Hage 18) and Bickle’s to the Lyric theatre (Scorsese 34:50), to both protagonists taking a gun and “aim[ing] it at the mirror” (Hage 288) while speaking to themselves with performative confidence (Scorsese 106:16).  Both characters exhibit a “fundamental bewilderment over [their] own male identity” (Greven 146) and are “voyeur[s] who [roam] through a pornographic realm—of theaters and [their] own mind[s]” (147). Indeed, in each case the protagonists “not duped by the symbolic order” (155) seek to “impose [their own] patriarchal rule on the excremental city” (156). Greven elaborates on how Travis’s employment of violence acts as a catalyst for his self-realization:

The violence and the rescue of Iris, together, symbolically signal Travis’s gendered and sexual normalization: gendered, in that he demonstrates that he is no longer intimidated by other men; has become someone who ‘stood up’… sexual, in that his rescue of Iris functions conventionally as a marker of some kind of heterosexual intimacy, commitment, relationship, and provides a genuine ‘climax.’ (155)                    

Much like Bickle, the Narrator of Cockroach simultaneously seeks to reclaim his capacity to violently protect and exhibits his distaste for the “rich… complacent… filth” expressing a wish to “shoot them all” (Hage 299). Cockroach is fundamentally a narrative about regaining masculinity despite societal dispossession. The Narrator notes how he used to “be more courageous, more carefree, and even, one might add, more violent” (Hage 4), but no one “gives you an excuse” (4) for violence in a Canadian context. As Pease notes “when men migrate to another country, they bring with them assumptions and practices associated with manhood in their culture” (80) assumptions which, for the Narrator, revolve primarily around the acceptability of violence, and the treatment of women. Luckily for him, Shohreh expresses a desire for the more traditional form of masculinity he inhabits, decrying “mama’s boys” (52) while the Narrator expresses that he can “live in filth and hunger” (52) in addition to a hope for the possibility to “get married” (52). Indeed, the desire to sire a family is one way in which men are able to ground their masculinity, regardless of how much their general social status has been diminished. As Donaldson and Howson describe “It is the choosing of the indignity, the embracing of the difficulties and impositions of paid work, for the sake of one’s family, that gives meaning to the paid work that men undertake” (212). Thus, without this driving motivation, the Narrator’s daily toil is without meaning. However, as “there is honour in self-sacrifice for the family” (Donaldson 212), when the Narrator is afforded the opportunity to claim his masculinity through violence rather than through menial toil, just like Bickle, he endeavors to do so. 

Tracing the emasculation of the Narrator requires a return to his childhood, in the stories he relays to his therapist Genevieve. The Narrator is quick to declare that he “was an insect… because [his] sister made [him] one” (Hage 5). While initially we assume this to be a reference to the strange pseudo-sexual play the two engage in, it is later revealed that his sister in fact names him a “little cockroach” (235) when he suggests that she leave her husband for “the only decent man” (235) she knows. Indeed, his powerlessness seems to stem from his inability to correct the course of his sister’s life, as he cannot “manage” (136) to kill her abusive husband Tony, instead only mustering the strength to take “a shot above Tony’s head” (137). As Tony makes a promise that the Narrator will “regret this” (137), they meet once more after Tony has killed the Narrator’s sister. In this instance, the Narrator finds that he “couldn’t pull the trigger” (243), and thus he has not only failed to protect his sister, but also failed to avenge her. Such a realization triggers the Narrator’s devolution into the powerless cockroach his sister named him to be. Perhaps then, it is not his sister who made him a cockroach, but his inability to sacrifice himself for her and instead choose “greed” (243).

When Shohreh offers the Narrator the “chance to do it again” (247), and reclaim his masculine capacity for violence, the Narrator experiences a deep sense of doubt, questioning whether he would “not pull the trigger again… if [he would] turned and left again… [walk] away …and never [come] back” (248). Through this speech, it becomes clear that the Narrator left his homeland because of his failure to fulfill his masculine role within it. Thus, despite his complaints that Canada does not offer an excuse for violence, he has been unable to properly act in places which do. However, he later decides to help Shohreh on the grounds that he has “an even bigger desire than before to be with her” (277). Instead of taking the actively violent role, however, the Narrator chooses to show her how to use a gun herself, counselling her to “not think, and never hesitate” (295). However this lesson fails when Shohreh “misse[s]” (304) Shaheed, forcing the Narrator to defend his “lover” (304) and is able to muster the courage to murder Shaheed and his bodyguard. Here he invokes the memory of a time when he was “pushed… for no reason” (304) after recently arriving in Canada, and took violent revenge. Thus, through a memory of migratory masculine indignity, and inspired by love, the Narrator is able to symbolically defeat the corrupt power schemas he is positioned against. He kills the coyote, and experiences the pure bliss of a “dancing gypsy” (305) as he accepts his role in the cockroach “underground” (305). 

What happens when the Cowboy has ridden off into the sunset, or the Cockroach down the drain? While traditional Westerns suggest a gradual march towards civilizational progress, Cockroach, as a Neo-Western, suggests a gradual retreat from it. At the end of the novel reality has been entirely disrupted, overt political violence has been imported into the peaceful appearance of Canadian society, the bounds of law have been overstepped, and yet, justice has been found. True justice, then, must exist outside the bounds of a neoliberal global construct, it must place dignity and humanity above profit. Cockroach exposes traditional narratives of peaceful western progress as illusory, founded by the violent conquest of land, and maintained by military industrialism and collaboration with politically useful dictatorships. Though its anti-hero is far from a perfect moral figure, he is a product of his environment, and a necessary actor for global systems of oppression to be undone. By utilizing the western form, Cockroach calls for a reassessment of which figures should occupy the renegade cowboy role within our society, and forces us to question who we should afford the right to exercise extralegal masculine violence. By placing that capacity in the hands of an impoverished criminal immigrant, Hage expands the frontier of who can rightfully inhabit the role of hero, as our topographies of global inequities are realized with fuller, more nuanced detail.

Works Cited

Donaldson, Mike and Richard Howson. “Men, Migration and Hegemonic Masculinity.” Migrant Men: Critical Studies of Masculinities and the Migration Experience, edited by David Hempton, Routledge, 2012. 

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Lawless Pleasures of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher Novels.” The New Yorker, 9 Sept. 2015, 

Greven, David. Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin. University of Texas, 2013. 

Hage, Rawi. Cockroach. House of Anansi Press Inc., 2009. 

Hagelin, Sarah, and Gillian Silverman. “The Female Antihero and Police Power in FX’s Justified.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 17, no. 5, 2017, pp. 851–65.

“Malcolm Gladwell’s Mind-Blowing Theory about Crime Shows.” The Joe Rogan Experience from YouTube, 13 Nov. 2019, . 

Pease, Bob. “Immigrant Men and Domestic Life: Renegotiating the Patriarchal Bargain?” Migrant Men: Critical Studies of Masculinities and the Migration Experience, edited by David Hempton, Routledge, 2012. 

Scorsese, Martin, director. Taxi Driver. Columbia Pictures, 1976.