It was mostly Jenny’s glee over the very idea of “an in-womb fetus who is also Hamlet” at Reading the End that made me pick up Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell when I came across it. In the past, I’ve been a fan of McEwan’s writing. I loved Atonement and The Children Act and liked Sweet Tooth. This tale told by a fetus, however, was a bridge too far.
After telling how he came up with the idea for the novel, McEwan says in an interview “I’m going to get such a kicking for this. But, the more I thought that, the more I enjoyed it. I was committed from the first sentence. I just had so much fun.” So the novel itself ought to be more fun.
It isn’t, though. The conceit weighs heavy on the narrative, with the fetus making frequent references to how he knows something: “When, in the early days, she inserted her earbuds, I heard clearly, so efficiently did sound waves travel through jawbone and clavicle, down through her skeletal structure, swiftly through the nourishing amniotic. Even television conveys most of its meager utility by sound. Also, when my mother and Claude meet, they occasionally discuss the state of the world, usually in terms of lament, even as they scheme to make it worse.”
The fun of the fetus being like Hamlet, unable to act—in this case literally, because he isn’t born yet—is muted by his ponderous musings:
“So, getting closer, my idea was To be. Or if not that, its grammatical variant, is. This was my aboriginal notion and here’s the crux—is. Just that. In the spirit of Es muss sein. The beginning of conscious life was the end of illusion, the illusion of non-being, and the eruption of the real. The triumph of realism over magic, of is over seems. My mother is involved in a plot, and therefore I am too, even if my role might be to foil it. Or if I, reluctant fool, come to term too late, then to avenge it.”
Fetus Hamlet’s father is a sensitive poet while his uncle Claude is a shallow, money-grubbing real estate type. From this, I guess we deduce the author’s own idea of who should rule, and who is the criminal who would overthrow such rightful rule. The fetus also articulates what I presume to be McEwan’s own view of the United States: “Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every new handgun.”
There is way too much description of drinking, with the fetus spewing out long and unlikely reviews of wines, like “the spicy cassis and black cherry…the hint of violets and fine tannins suggests that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves, though a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009.” There is so much to give the author a kicking over here, and so little fun in asking questions like what the hell can a fetus know about the next room?
Also there is way, way too much description of late, third-trimester sex between the fetus’ mother Trudy and her lover Claude. Other reviews (yes, I read some to determine if anyone has yet given McEwan the kicking he deserves, and I concluded not) have made much of lines like “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose,” but it seems to me that no one has yet adequately conveyed how repellent the sex is, how often it happens, and how much this weighs down a reader’s progress through the book. Maybe we’re supposed to feel the grossness of Claude’s hands “paddling in her neck,” or wherever, but mostly what I felt was weariness and disgust at the repetition.
The little jabs at current events fall just as flat as the long, still moments after the kick of a little foot from inside, when an expectant father or friend stands there with his hand on the still and stretched belly, waiting. When a fetus pronounces that “If my college does not bless me, validate me and give me what I clearly need, I’ll press my face into the vice chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation,” it is pretty clearly not the fetus himself speaking.
The task of reading this short novel is arduous. Do not undertake it. There is not enough fun to be had.