“Now I live inside a story and fret about its outcome.”
So says the often arch narrator of Ian McEwan’s latest novel Nutshell. The story? Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In twenty first century London, the narrator discovers that his mother, Trudy, and his uncle, Claude, are not only lovers, but are plotting to murder his father, the poet and publisher John Cairncross.
Of course, in Shakespeare’s original, Prince Hamlet only begins to suspect his uncle’s involvement in ‘murder most foul’ after the deed is done. But this is not the only premature element in McEwan’s retelling. In Nutshell, the narrator is a nine-month-old foetus speaking to us from his mother’s womb, eloquent beyond his years through what he gleans from podcasts, television and BBC radio.
Jack Gladney, in Don DeLillo’s 1984 novel White Noise, declares that ‘all plots tend to move deathward.’ This applies both to plots-as-murder-schemes and to plots-as-events-in-books. But in Nutshell, while one strand of the story is certainly geared toward death, the tendency of the plot is ultimately birthward – as it would be for a foetus.
This unique vantage point allows McEwan astonishing scope, and what results is a work of art both claustrophobic and expansive. He will dwell beautifully on the miraculous minutia of everyday experience, and a moment later will make a foray into thoughts about the nature of civilisation and reality at large. In certain aspects, this book feels like a lovechild of McEwan’s unsettling early short stories and his later novels that have tended to tap into contemporary problems in society and science, often through the lives of middle class protagonists.
In McEwan’s Saturday, the principal character, Henry Perowne dismisses the magical realism of the twentieth century, idly referencing a novel where ‘one visionary saw through a pub window his parents as they had been some weeks after his conception, discussing the possibility of aborting him.’ This is a sly reference to McEwan’s own The Child in Time which was probably the last novel before Nutshell that the writer went beyond the attentive and sceptical realism that has characterised much of his recent fiction.
McEwan has always been a writer acutely aware of the way desire shapes the real, and in Nutshell everything is imagined, everything is mediated, everything beyond is a kind of story. The touchstone of Hamlet, alternately sceptical and supernatural, is perfect for McEwan’s purposes. At the heart of both is an existential question. Like Hamlet, the narrator is caught between two extremes. On one hand, the world is a wonder, with miracles abound. On the other, war and suffering is always near at hand, and the world he’s heading for seems like it is on the brink. The question? Not exactly to be or not to be. Rather, whether or not to be born at all.
From the book:
I’m immersed in abstractions, and only the proliferating relations between them create an illusion of a known world. When I hear ‘blue’, which I’ve never seen, I imagine some kind of mental event that’s fairly close to ‘green’ – which I’ve never seen. I count myself an innocent, unburdened by allegiances and obligations, a free spirit, despite my meagre living room. No one to contradict or reprimand me, no name or previous address, no religion, no debts, no enemies. My appointment diary, if it existed, notes only my forthcoming birthday.
And that’s what I wanted. A childish Halloween fantasy. How else to commission a spirit revenge in a secular age? The Gothic has been reasonably banished, the witches have fled the heath, and materialism, so troubling to the soul, is all I have left. A voice on the radio once told me that when we fully understand what matter is we’ll feel better. I doubt that. I’ll never get what I want.
Jonathan Cape, 2016. Since June 2017, in paperback from Vintage.
J. S. Loveard is a writer who lives in Leamington Spa, England. He has an MFA from the University of Warwick, and experiences anxiety when speaking about himself in the third person. He tweets @jsloveard.