Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

by Robert A. Parker

I have read many novels by McEwan, often because I am fascinated by his premise, as I am again here. But I am often disappointed by his work, as well, because at the end I do not accept his frame of reference, his view of the world or of his characters. And both factors are again reflected in this work.

The fascinating premise in this 2016 work is that the narrator of this novel is an unborn baby. Which is made more intriguing because he is witnessing a plot by his mother, Trudy, to murder his father, John, her estranged husband. The disappointment comes for me in the execution of the baby’s narration. First, it is overwritten. It is too poetic, too descriptive, too intellectualized. I will accept that through the hearing of voices and sounds an unborn child might envisage some of the existence he is about to enter. And through taste and feel get even more of a hint about what his future existence will be like. But this unborn surmises far too much. He also thinks too deeply and interprets too broadly what his senses detect, far more than I am willing to accept.

On the other hand, Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times loved this novel, declaring that it “possesses all the verbal gifts of its creator.” That the narrator is, “by turns, earnest, mocking, sarcastic, searching and irreverent.” He is, indeed, all of those things, except it is not really him; this is McEwan’s, the author’s, verbal gifts. And the result for me is a false perspective that reflects an author showing off, showing he can get away with breaking literary rules, just as his two villains are breaking moral and legal rules. Indeed, at the end of her review Kakutani writes: “It’s preposterous, of course, that a fetus would be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his slight of hand.” Oh, yes, he does, he surely does.

What also works against this novel is that the two plotters, by both their nature and their actions, lack any sympathy. Indeed, it becomes a chore to read this overwritten narrative about these two manipulating people. I neither care about them nor admire their cleverness as Trudy, the baby’s mother, and Claude her lover, the brother of the baby’s father, conspire to murder John, the unsuspecting victim. Nor does it help one relate to the villains that Trudy is more enthralled by Claude’s sexual prowess than by his intelligence and sterling character. How, one wonders, can she prefer this dull, crass real estate mogul to her sensitive, if striving, poet husband?

Indeed, husband John seems such a straight-forward character that one wonders if the author will let the plot succeed. And then, once the couple have acted, they begin to disagree, and almost turn on each other. But such a reversal seems to come more from the author than from the villainous pair. And, indeed, as they seem to be more motivated by self-preservation, they become still more unsympathetic and more unattractive.

The author attempts a certain complexity when the unborn narrator contrasts a baby’s natural love for his mother with the hatred this one feels for what she is doing. Where do his loyalties lie? He moves back and forth between dreams of proving her innocence and worrying about a life in which he’ll be moved from one prison to another. But he also resents that, amid all her plotting, she thinks only of herself and her lover, and rarely of him.

But with all the narrator’s deep certainty about the complex world he is about to enter, he is not clear about other things. Or at least the author wishes us to be. Does his father John have a lover of his own, the poet Elodie, or is she honest in saying there was no affair? And does John still truly love his betraying wife, as he claims? But such issues do not equate to the complex fate of the narrator. Instead, they lead back to: will or will not the lovers execute their plot, and, if they do, will or will not they be caught?

Which leads us to the ending. And for me, more dissatisfaction. It seems intended to be inevitable. And also intended to give the unborn child a role in deciding the fate of the two villains. After all, he cannot be passive right through until the end, can he? The result is, for me an unusual ending, yes, but an undramatic one. And an unfulfilling one for a literary work. Like the entire structure of the novel, it is more in keeping with the structure of a mystery novel. Which it does evolve into at the end, in fact, when the police enter the scene. And when the reader is distracted from the fate of the baby to follow the fate of the villainous couple.

The nutshell of the tile, incidentally, is from a line in Shakespeare. It refers to the narrator’s confinement in the womb and the lack of movement he endures. Of which McEwan continually reminds the reader. As a metaphor, however, it is more provocative than meaningful. It is a reminder of how limited the narrator is physically, even as his mind, or is it just his consciousness, wanders far abroad. Reviewers also refer to the parallels with Hamlet, with the baby a questioning Hamlet and Trudy and Claude standing in for Gertrude and Claudius, while the quote’s bad dreams refers to their dastardly plot, the evil that exists in the world this baby is about to enter.

McEwan was surely pleased with this novel. One can envision him chuckling as he writes, relishing his witty comment on the complex world his narrator is about to enter. But wit can carry one only so far, even if the baby can select whatever he wishes to comment upon and stretch his thinking in any direction. For, there must be action, and the only action left here is the lover’s plot. Thus, McEwan loses control, and cannot help turning to the perfidious act to be performed, then to the justice to be administered and the role of his narrator in seeking such justice. He has lost, for me, his literary cache, and become himself trapped in what is basically a mystery novel. The emotional entanglement among the four actors, father, mother, son, and lover, as well as the morality of their actions, fades into a final theatrical act that is all drama, without a sign of further moral complexity. (October, 2017)

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