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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review of NUTSHELL by Ian McEwan



4 Stars

Though not one of the novels commissioned by the Hogarth Shakespeare project, this book could be one of those novels inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.  Nutshell is a retelling of Hamlet; the twist is that the narrator is a fetus.

Trudy (Gertrude), the neonatal narrator’s mother, and Claude (Claudius), Trudy’s brother-in-law, are having an affair.  The two scheme to poison John, Trudy’s husband and the narrator’s father, so they can acquire his dilapidated but valuable London house.  In utero, the fetus hears “the voices of conspirators” as they engage in “pillow talk of deadly intent” (1).  So what is he to do:  “My mother is involved in a plot, and therefore I am too, even if my role might be to foil it.  Or, if I, reluctant fool, come to term too late, then avenge it” (3).

The reader must suspend disbelief and accept a fetus as narrator.  And this is no ordinary fetus; he is very precocious and articulate.  The reader is to accept that the yet-unborn narrator has acquired his knowledge because Trudy listens to talk radio, podcast lectures, and self-improving audiobooks.  He has a broad knowledge of history, art and poetry and a clear understanding of current events, and his well-informed taste in wine would befit an oenophile.  He finds James Joyce’s Ulysses thrilling (4) and he uses Latin and French phrases.

There are a few instances where McEwan includes digressions on the state of the world.  For instance, he summarizes a podcast:  “China, too big to need friends or counsel, cynically probing its neighbours’ shores . . . Muslim-majority countries plagued by religious puritanism . . . The Middle East, fast-breeder for a possible world war.  And foe-of-convenience, the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran.  Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every new handgun” (25).  The last sentence certainly made me think of the current American presidential election.  

At another time, McEwan has his narrator speculating as to what will happen in the rest of the century in which he will live his life:  he questions whether the world will “scrape through without a nuclear exchange?  Think of it as a contact sport.  Line up the teams.  Indian versus Pakistan, Iran versus Saudi Arabia, Israel versus Iran, USA versus China, Russia versus USA and NATO, North Korea versus the rest.  To raise the chances of a score, add more teams:  the non-state players will arrive.”  And he wonders about other possible events:  “A cosy 1.6 degrees, the projection of hope of a skeptical few, will open up the tundra to mountains of wheat, Baltic beachside tavernas, lurid butterflies in the Northwest Territories.  At the darker end of pessimism, a wind-torn four degrees allows for flood-and-drought calamity and all of turmoil’s dark political weather.  More narrative tension in subplots of local interest:  Will the Middle East remain in frenzy, will it empty into Europe and alter it for good?  Might Islam dip a feverish extremity in the cooling pond of reformation?  Might Israel concede an inch or two of desert to those it displaced?  Europa’s secular dreams of union may dissolve before the old hatreds, small-scale nationalism, financial disaster, discord. . . . Will the USA decline quietly?  Unlikely.  Will Ching grow a conscience, will Russia?  Will global finance and corporations?” (129)

But that doesn’t mean that the fetus wants not to live.  He mentions that “Pessimism is too easy, even delicious . . . It absolves the thinking classes of solutions” (260) and asserts, “Healthy desire or mere greed, I want my life first, my due, my infinitesimal slice of endless time and one reliable chance of a consciousness.  I’m owed a handful of decades to try my luck on a freewheeling planet. . . . I want my go.  I want to become” (128).

What I found rather incredible is that Trudy had not opted for an abortion.  She has no great attachment to her unborn child.  He has become a wine connoisseur because she drinks excessively.  She does not abstain from sexual intercourse:  “By this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf.  Courtesy, if not clinical judgment, demands it” (20).  And the fetus comments that “no preparations have been made for my arrival, no clothes, no furniture, no compulsive nest-making.  I’ve never knowingly been in a shop with my mother” (131).  John seems to care as little; in a conversation that should have made reference to his child, “Not even a mention, not in an aside, not even dismissed as an irrelevance” (71).  Claude speaks of “’[placing] the baby somewhere’” (41) so adoption, as the narrator fears, is a definite possibility:  Placed is but the lying cognate of dumped.  As the baby is of me.  Somewhere is a liar too. . . . This will be my undoing, my fall, for only in fairy tales are unwanted children orphaned upwards.  The Duchess of Cambridge will not be taking me on” (42).  Of course, there would be no narrator if the abortion option had been chosen.  I would have like to know why it was not considered – or did that consideration take place in the days of the narrator’s “careless youth” when he “floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts  through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults” (1)?

I also had difficulty with the relationship between Trudy and Claude.  They are such an unlikely pair.  He lacks intelligence and speaks in clichés.  The fetus describes Claude as a “property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing.  He enjoys a thought, speaks it aloud, then later has it again, and – why not – says it again” (5).  Those “repeated remarks are a witless, thrustless dribble, whose impoverished sentences die like motherless chicks, cheaply fading.”  The fetus even worries that during sex, Claude will “break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and see my thoughts with his essence, with the teeming cream of his banality.  Then brain-damaged, I’ll think and speak like him” (20-21).  Understandably, the narrator has a bias and so his descriptions may be unreliable, but Claude’s words and actions suggest there is accuracy in the direct characterization.

As the above quotations illustrate, McEwan’s writing is brilliant.  As is typical of his novels, there is fabulous word play and extensive use of literary allusions.  The use of a narrator who even pre-birth is a Renaissance man may strain the reader’s credulity, but one cannot but admire the author’s originality.  And there are wonderful touches of humour:  “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose” (20).

Apparently, Gillian Flynn has agreed to interpret Hamlet for the Hogarth Shakespeare project.  It is perhaps fortunate that her version is not due for release until January of 2021 because she will have a difficult task surpassing McEwan’s retelling.