Quite an opener, that. Right up there, I’d say, with Kafka’s metamorphosed insect.
And it strikes just the right note from the outset, since this testy speaker is in fact a late-term male fetus, impatient with his cramped and watery surroundings, more than ready to be born, to claim his right to a life. “I’m owed a handful of decades to try my luck on a freewheeling planet,” he proclaims.
We aren’t given a name for this rather unique narrator. But wait: his mother’s name is Trudy; her lover is called Claude. Together they are conspiring to cause the death of John, Trudy’s estranged husband and Claude’s brother. Oh – and the biological father of our pre-born raconteur. He is the silent witness to these machinations, helpless save for his ability to deliver, from time to time, a well placed kick.
This quotation appears in the book’s front matter:
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet, II.ii
I’ve worked out what’s meant by most of the dialog in that play – but I’ve never understood this particular line. Ah well, no matter – McEwan has here put it to very cunning use.
In many ways, this is a strange and wondrous novel, a bravura performance. The fireworks and provocative observations that characteristically enliven McEwan’s prose are everywhere on display. These thoughts, for example, are entertained by the little mini-Hamlet (micro-Hamlet?) in response to a podcast filled with bleak thoughts and bleaker predictions. (Trudy had listened to it and he – inevitably – had overheard):
Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions….Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived? When fewer die in wars and childbirth than ever before – and more knowledge, more truth by way of science, was never so available to us all? When tender sympathies – for children, animals, alien religions, unknown, distant foreigners- swell daily?…When smallpox, polio, cholera, measles, high infant mortality, illiteracy, public executions and routine state torture have been banished from so many countries? Not so long ago, all these curses were everywhere….what of the commonplace miracles that would make a manual labourer the envy of Caesar Augustus: pain-free dentistry [and this, from a little guy who doesn’t even have teeth yet!], electric light, instant contact with people we love, with the best music the world has known, with the cuisine if a dozen cultures?
He could go on – and believe me, he does – yet he ends on this plangent note:
We’ll always be troubled by how things are–that’s how it stands with the difficult gift of consciousness.
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all….
The background presence of Shakespeare’s masterpiece is at times even more powerfully resonant. Here the fetus has retreated into a decidedly more melancholy disposition:
But lately, don’t ask why, I’ve no taste for comedy, no inclination to exercise, even if I had the space, no delight in fire on earth, in words that once revealed a golden world of majestical stars, the beauty of poetic apprehension, the infinite joy of reason. These admirable radio talks and bulletins, the excellent podcasts that moved me, seem at best hot air, at worst a vaporous stench.
And here is the Prince of Denmark’s famous “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy:
I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so.
(This passage contains what is, for me, the single most astonishing locution in all of English literature: ‘…a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” Amazing!)
I don’t want to give the impression that Nutshell is an exercise in dreary pessimism. Quite the opposite: It’s alive with sheer inventiveness. In the course of its short duration – just under two hundred pages – you rarely know what’s going to happen next, or if you do, you still don’t know how it’s going to happen. From time to time, the author’s mordant wit enlivens the proceedings. Even given its brevity, the novel is an exceptionally fast read – at least, it was for me.
I have to admit that when I first learned of the novel’s premise, I thought, well, this is rather bizarre! And more than one book-loving friend has admitted to finding it rather off putting. Having now read it, I have to say that I enjoyed it. It seems to have been undertaken in the spirit of, Can I pull this off? A literary sleight of hand, in other words. Very clever. But not especially deep.
When Ian McEwan told his editor his new novel would be told from the point of view of a foetus, fully inverted in his mother’s womb, “I got a rather glassy look. He [the editor] said ‘Oh, great’ in a rather flat tone; he was not sort of throwing his hat in the air,’’ McEwan recalls with a chuckle so dry and light, it barely registers down the phone line.
I would love to discuss this novel, but possibly with just one other person, and I’d be more comfortable if that person were a woman. You see – and I haven’t got around to mentioning this yet – Nutshell contains the most explicit sex scenes that I’ve encountered since On Chesil Beach.
I really love Ian McEwan’s work. I consider him brilliant. So, while this book was fun, I’m ready for a return to profundity. Ready, in other words, for another novel like The Children Act.