Thursday, April 28, 2022

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

There was a time when I was always up-to-date on Ian McEwan's novels. There was also a time when I was young and carefree; life is like that.

Nutshell was his new novel for 2016; he had one before this that I've missed so far, The Children Act, and has published two further novels and a novella since then. So I won't try to make bold claims about the current thrust of his career, though I might point backwards to earlier books like Sweet Tooth and Solar and On Chesil Beach that I have read.

McEwan's books are often arranged around a big idea, and Nutshell is that more than most. It is explicitly a retelling of Hamlet, in modern London, as narrated by a near-term fetus. Yes, indeed.

The unnamed - how could he be named, since he hasn't been born yet? - narrator has the usual wide erudition and cultural knowledge of a McEwan protagonist, which the author lightly lampshades by insisting that his mother listens to a lot of podcasts and other nonfictional programming. He also has a refined palate, including very strong preferences in wines, which presumably he only experiences as mediated through the placenta.

At this point, the reader will suspect that McEwan is hugely indulging himself, and that we will have to do so as well if we want to go along for the ride. Our narrator is a person, I suppose, and one who has occasional impacts on the story, but he's mostly a viewpoint, and a very late-McEwan viewpoint at that.

Anyway: poet John Cairncross has been exiled from his ancestral manse, a decaying pile in a somewhat fashionable London neighborhood. His wife Trudy is living there alone, having kicked out John for reasons that are sufficient but which don't get cataloged in any depth. And John's younger brother Claude, a somewhat dim property developer, is currently fucking Trudy on the regular, in that very home.

Inevitably, Trudy and Claude start to ponder how their lives would be simpler and more filled with riches if only John were to cease to be. This happens, I hasten to add, during the course of the novel: unlike Hamlet, Nutshell begins well before the murder plot does.

The action of Nutshell takes less than a week - I didn't count, but I think it's just more than three days. It is all, again, narrated from within Trudy's uterus by Our Narrator, and you may expect that a writer as fond of unpleasant details as McEwan will lovingly depict some thoughts of what Claude fucking Trudy means for the person at the interior end of her vagina.

This is a short book: less than two hundred pages. McEwan knows he can't overstay his welcome with something as inherently goofy as this, and he doesn't. There is a fair bit of incident, and a whole lot of  amusingly sophisticated (and completely unbelievable, if one stops to think about it for a second) commentary from our unborn gourmand, but, at it's heart, this is a love triangle story that has already hit the end and broken down. 

Though the narrator mentions knowing a lot of things, and does drag in lots of irrelevant high-culture class signifiers in his narration, he misses a lot of more central matters - some because he obviously can't see what's going on, some because he is, let us not forget, a fetus, and some presumably just because McEwan wants it that way. For just one example, it takes the narrator a couple of chapters to realize that Claude, the guy fucking his mother just about every day, is actually his occasionally-mentioned uncle.

Nutshell is not serious in any sense: it is essentially an extended literary joke. It's possibly the most frivolous of McEwan's books. It is funny and casually erudite and full of great lines, but anyone looking for a return of the cold and cruel McEwan of his early career will be disappointed.

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