Saturday, November 5, 2016
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
Oh course a real murder is not nearly so amusing as its fictional half-brother, and we get inklings of that in this novel that highlights dark and murky motives for murder from an unusual quarter: a snobbish unborn oenophile who, though he cannot see, has numerous other senses with which to judge his family.
One of the best parts of this novel comes right at the start, when McEwan takes a stab at imagining the first moment of consciousness in a human’s life. Not just any human, but Trudy’s son, likewise son of the psoriatic poet, John, whom Trudy plots to kill during the course of this novel. And oh, such lying words spoken to hide the greed, lust, and revenge were never spoken so beautifully, so smoothly, so unbelievably. For they weren’t believed, not by the fetus, the chief inspector, nor, apparently, by John’s poetess friend.
This delightful novel had the parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet that others have pointed to, but among its many other references to earlier works, it was also a crime novel par excellence, with the plot, murder, defense, and getaway offered up with sly asides to those of us who think it might be easy to pull off such a thing when one is two weeks shy of a full term.
But more, McEwan throws in cameos on the state of the world delivered on TV news shows, radio announcements, or earphones-delivered political podcasts and has our not-yet-born listen to discourse on the torments to come. “These disasters are the work of our twin natures. Clever and infantile.” All of which makes the listening fetus feel anxiety and no little umbrage. “Like everyone else, I’ll take what I want, whatever suits me.” Oh yes, son of mine, you no doubt will.
And what of revenge, yearned for by John’s son, who wishes most heartily for John to return and crush the life from his murderers. Following the build-up to the murder while floating in his amniotic sac, our clever fetus realizes he needs to seize his opportunity to avenge his father’s death.
We are treated, in the course of this novel, to writing advice: ‘If it doesn’t come at once, it shouldn’t come. There is a special grace in facility.’ ‘Don’t unpack your heart. One detail tells the truth.’ and ‘Form isn’t a cage.’ In an interview McEwan tells us this advice is “rubbish” he picked up from a Saul Bellow interview he’d heard once. "One really does have to work at it,” he tells us and in this case he'd worked on it solidly for 18 months, doing very little else, all the while assailed by doubts about whether he was completely bonkers to be writing from the point of view of a fetus.
The book is slim, and yet packed with murderous plotting, references to other literature, the state of the world, and the curious position of a fetus so clearly aware of his environment. This of course would take some writerly skill and attention to detail. An earlier draft of this review sounded patronizing regarding the struggle to birth such a piece, though conceiving a novel from the viewpoint of a fetus was…as easy as rolling off a log, from what McEwan tells us. As it should be.
Critics I have read have a tendency to choose favorites from among McEwan oeuvre, utterly discarding a few titles as so much mulch. I feel differently. In nearly every book McEwan brings in world issues we face (like climate change), indicating to me that this author suffers not from a failure of imagination. His sense of humor still reigns supreme, including us in his worldview. He is writing to us, for us. For that we celebrate his skills.
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