“Nutshell,” Ian McEwan’s preposterously weird little novel, is more brilliant than it has any right to be. The plot sounds like something sprung from a drunken round of literary Mad Libs: a crime of passion based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” narrated by a fetus.
That it should come to this!
If you can get beyond that icky premise, you’ll discover a novel that sounds like a lark but offers a story that’s surprisingly suspenseful, dazzlingly clever and gravely profound. To the extent that “Hamlet” is an existential tragedy marked with moments of comedy, “Nutshell” is a philosophical comedy marked by moments of tragedy.
McEwan, who won the Booker Prize in 1998 for “Amsterdam,” has shown a strong preference for short novels, and in this case that restraint seems wiser than ever. His narrator notes that some authors — like babies — can accomplish wonders in small spaces. McEwan knows that brevity is the soul of wit.
Essentially a 200-page monologue delivered in utero, “Nutshell” opens with this amniotic line: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.” Not exactly Shakespeare, but labor on. This narrator speaks from the discovered country from which all of us come: “Fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged.”
Even by Washington standards, this is a precocious fetus. Over several dark days, he — yes, he — reveals a well-informed taste in wine, a broad knowledge of history and a firm grasp of current events. A Latin phrase here and there suggests an unusually sophisticated mind, although he humbly acknowledges that “no child, much less a foetus, has ever mastered the art of small talk.” He’s not a ham so much as a Hamlet.
Such worldliness would be unbelievable, except that our narrator claims he’s an attentive listener of his mother’s educational podcasts. He doth protest too much, methinks, but the whole premise of the novel rests on his thoroughly isolated, well-developed consciousness trapped as a reluctant witness. “I count myself an innocent,” he notes, “but it seems I’m party to a plot.”
Clearly, something is rotten in the state of matrimony. “Outside these warm, living walls,” he warns, “an icy tale slides towards its hideous conclusion.” His mother, Trudy, is carrying on an affair with his dull-witted uncle, Claude (Queen Gertrude, King Claudius — check, check). When they’re not having sex — described here from an alarmingly close perspective — they’re planning to murder Trudy’s husband, Claude’s brother. They need him out of the way not only so that they can marry each other, but to get their hands on the family estate, an expensive old house in London.
This is not a consummation devoutly to be wished, particularly by the narrator. He has no special fondness for his hapless father — a poor poet — but, having heard a radio documentary called “Babies Behind Bars,” he’s worried that his mother will be arrested, and then he’ll be birthed from one prison into another.
What’s a fetus to do besides lament his inability to act? “Waiting is the thing,” he concedes. And although this be madness, yet there is method in it. As we listen to the conspirators plotting, our pre-born narrator reflects on the world he’s about to enter. It’s not a wholly welcoming place, as you may have noticed. Some of the novel’s most eloquent passages capture the state of our peril: “A combination, poverty and war, with climate change held in reserve, driving millions from their homes, an ancient epic in new form, vast movements of people, like engorged rivers in spring, Danubes, Rhines and Rhones of angry or desolate or hopeful people, crammed at borders against the razor-wire gates, drowning in thousands to share in the fortunes of the West.”
But there’s the rub: “Pessimism is too easy, even delicious,” the fetal narrator says. It’s “the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions.” He has no intention of giving up before he arrives: “I want my life first, my due, my infinitesimal slice of endless time and one reliable chance of a consciousness. I’m owed a handful of decades to try my luck on a freewheeling planet.”
But only if he can forestall the carnage gathering around him.
Even on this, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, no one could blame you for tiring of Bard rewrites. For every “Thousand Acres” and “Edgar Sawtelle,” there’s a mess of lesser progeny. “Vinegar Girl,” Anne Tyler’s modern-day version of “Taming of the Shrew,” just passed through last month. “Hag-Seed,” Margaret Atwood’s take on “The Tempest,” arrives in a few weeks. But “Nutshell” offers the unmatched pleasure of McEwan’s prose, inflected with witty echoes of Shakespeare.
Especially for a fetus, this narrator does a lot of winking. When he describes Claude as a man “whose impoverished sentences die like motherless chicks, cheaply fading,” it’s hard not to think of all the mere mortals who compete with McEwan for our reading attention. He’s so casually insightful, even as he offers such bracing diagnoses of our era — from faith-based violence to the inanity of identity politics — in phrases that ring with the real metal of genius.
It doesn’t seem possible that this oddly ridiculous narrator caught in a tawdry murder scheme could deliver such a moving, hilarious testimony, filled with equal measures of dread and hope, but babies and sweet princes can surprise you.
Welcome to the world, Nutshell.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. Follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Sept. 15 at 7 p.m., Ian McEwan will be at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW. For tickets, call Politics & Prose at 202-364-1919 or visit sixthandi.org.
By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese. 197 pp. $24.95