McEwan's Magical Prose Can't Rescue Insipid Contrivance of Nutshell

By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape Publishers, 208 pp.
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Savor this passage, from whence the title of Ian McEwan’s latest novel is derived. In the midst of musing on confined spaces in art and science, McEwan writes:

To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavour, is just a speck in the universe of possible things. And when this universe may well be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes.

Savor this because it’s mighty fine prose from a celebrated British author (Atonement, Comfort of Strangers, etc.) who has won the Man Booker Prize once, has been nominated five other times, and has shelves full of other awards. But savor it also because the style is the best thing about his latest novel. Although it’s a retelling of Hamlet, somewhere along the line, McEwan forgot to write a story worthy of his eloquence. His is a one-trick pony laden with adornments designed to make a plow horse appear a show stallion.

The novel’s device—and it’s a clunky one—is to change the point of view of that most conventional of plots: a love triad. Hamlet works because of its sumptuous setting of the royal court of Denmark and because the principals–Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude—are characters of depth and complexity. And let’s not forget a cast of intriguing supporting characters: Polonius, Horatio, Ophelia, and a ghost! McEwan’s setting is suburban London, a decidedly non-regal place, and his principals are far more shallow: John Cairncross, a crusty though respected poet; his wife, Trudy, who is full in the tummy, but vacant in the head; and John’s solipsistic brother, Claude, who has been successful in real estate, but is a clod who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, especially family fealty. Claude and Trudy are lovers, despite the fact that she is carrying John’s soon-to-born child.

Here’s where the nutshell comes into play—our narrator for the coming Hamlet-like perfidy and sanguinary treachery is Trudy’s unborn child (the future Prince Hamlet?). That’s unique, I suppose, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s also pure contrivance—and a thin, implausible one that leads to logical inconsistencies that not even McEwan can write his way out of. I think he banked on the hope that readers would suspend disbelief once they got used to the idea of a talking fetus. This leads him to try to have things both ways. At times the unborn child is blissfully innocent and ignorant. In other moments, our little nutshell is displaced from his placental sac and expounds upon people’s appearances, classical music, the coital thrust of his uncle’s penis just inches from his head, and politics. What do we make of this musing on the United States?

…barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every handgun.

This is so insightful I’d declare the speaker “Tocqueville for Modern Times,” were those reflections from any character other than a fetus! McEwan wants us to think that our not-yet-a-person is capable on such wisdom. Also that he can detect the thinness of the Pouilly-Fumé his mother has just consumed, or that he can plot his own role in the unfolding drama.

If you know Hamlet, you can probably predict how this ends. A cliché holds that there is no such thing as a perfect murder and literary convention thrives on the fatal overlooked detail. Fair enough, but shouldn’t these standards apply equally to literary devices and logic? Let’s be brutally honest. If you were teaching a writing class and a first-year student outlined a story with an omniscient fetus, wouldn’t you urge the student to dispense with such a sophomoric, hackneyed setup? Why should we lower those standards for a writer as gifted as McEwan? From where I sit, my cracking of Nutshell yielded rancid meat.

Rob Weir

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