Nutshell by Ian McEwan: To be born, or not to be- that is the question
Nutshell is the 17th novel from acclaimed British author, Ian McEwan. This latest book is constructed within the framework of Shakespeare’s best-known play. The protagonist becomes aware of a plot between his mother, Trudy (Gertrude) and his uncle, Claude (Claudius), to poison his father, John Cairncross, ‘a man who knows by heart a thousand poems.’ He listens furtively to their scheming, deplores their devious plot, craves revenge, and curses his helplessness. So far, so Hamlet.
So what’s new? The narrator is a foetus of 38 weeks gestation. He describes his situation in the brilliant opening line: ‘So here I am, upside down in a woman.’
This genius concept defines obvious constrictions to the narrative: our foetal friend has, literally, nowhere to go. The initial thrill of Nutshell is observing McEwan’s masterful agility within the limited room for manoeuvre.
Trudy’s habitual listening to the BBC World Service, podcast lectures, and self-improvement audiobooks provides her son with a pre-natal education spanning everything from philosophy to physics. Furthermore, Trudy has coached him in the appreciation of a decent bottle of wine, Jean-Max Roger Sancerre, for preference.
This precocious foetus may not see beyond his close quarters, but he is a witness, uncomfortably so, to every interaction between his mother and her lover. He is privy to every scheming conversation. He shares every glass of wine she sips and every hormonal rush she experiences. He divines her thoughts and feelings through the stirrings of her guts and the tempo of her heartbeat.
Despite his insider-knowledge, the foetus can’t act to save his father. He ‘can barely crook a finger.’ He has little choice but to wait, gnashing his gums and plotting revenge.
Ian McEwan wrote an article for the Guardian in 2013 describing how his faith in fiction sometimes falters. He doubts the value of fiction, loses sight of the point of it. He wonders whether his time would be better spent swotting up on particle physics.
But then he comes across a detail, a perfectly chosen phrase or beautifully composed line, and he remembers the power of fiction. ‘Caress the details,’ is the advice McEwan has taken to heart. ‘Appreciating the lines,’ he says, ‘you are not only at one with the writer but with everyone who likes them too.’
In the same article, McEwan describes a moment when he became aware of the potential for inter-penetration between fact and fiction. As a boy of 13, he was alone in the school library and engrossed in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. He came to a scene, set in a sweltering July of 1900, where the hero describes an illustration in the satirical magazine, Punch. McEwan, in an inspired moment, walked across the library to the school’s ancient collection of Punch, selected the July 1900 edition, and saw the scene for himself, Mr. Punch mopping his sweaty brow, which his fictional companion had just described. The author recalls experiencing a thrill of connection and feeling ‘elated by the power of something both imagined and real.’
McEwan took note of the power of this device in an author’s toolbox. ‘Realism,’ he says, ‘may be bolstered by the actual.’ In Nutshell, McEwan takes this device to extremes.
He echoes, perhaps in tribute, the heatwave so well-illustrated in Punch but he chooses to hinge his plot upon the most familiar of Shakespeare’s works. He throws in such a myriad of references that I had a constant feeling I was missing something. The thrill of recognising the familiar is perhaps exactly what McEwan aims to deliver. It might seem foolhardy or unoriginal to re-write Shakespeare but McEwan’s Hamlet is like a trick of light, a reflection in a fairground House of Mirrors, Hamlet inverted.
He bolsters his bizarre realism with familiar 21st century personalities and media stories. The reader connects with the narrator through references to the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cambridge and Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach. We have listened to the same news reports. This can’t be fiction, it is our reality.
‘We heard from Austria about a locked roadside truck and seventy-one migrants left to panic, suffocate and rot. Only the brave would send their imaginations inside the final moments.’
That line stopped me in my tracks, ‘Only the brave...’ The moment of hearing another horrific story on the news and reining in my imagination before it travels farther than I can bear. That, for me, is what Ian McEwan’s foetus describes as ‘the sort of line that hits you, hurts you, before you’ve followed exactly what was said.’
I will carry that line away and caress its details. That may not be the line for you. There are plenty more to choose from.
In Nutshell, McEwan stands on the shoulders of Shakepeare and Joyce. Perhaps we even see McEwan on the shoulders of Joyce on the shoulders of Shakepeare in a literary circus stunt of mind-boggling proportions.
Typing "Cairncross and Hamlet" into Google, I found that John Cairncross was a WW2 double-agent who relayed information to the Russians. Andrew Cairncross wrote a book, The Problem of Hamlet, which debates the dating and origin of Shakepeare’s play. The little thrill of discovery I felt was like solving one side of a Rubik’s cube. One reading won’t suffice. McEwan has packed much more into this book than the words on its 199 pages.
Nutshell is no tragedy of the second Elizabethan era. This is an author, at the top of his game, having fun. This is a master displaying his expertise. This is Evil Knievel in Wembley clearing 14 Greyhound buses. We don’t need to know how he did it. Just enjoy it.