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Infinitesimal Jest

By (October 1, 2016) 5 Comments

By Ian McEwan
Knopf, 2016nutmcewanshell

Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is fundamentally misconceived. Its unexpected premise—a narrating fetus—sadly miscarries. However long the idea might have gestated in its author’s mind, he ought never to have delivered it. That, in a nutshell, is my judgment of Nutshell—and that a novel by McEwan, who has written what I consider some of the smartest and most artful fiction of the last twenty years, has reduced me to cheap, even distasteful, puns is the most damning indictment of it I can imagine. His novels are always sharply intelligent, but Nutshell lacks the both the emotional resonance and the moral heft that make the best of them more than cold intellectual exercises. It is still smart, but it is also shallow, so it is hard to engage with it except as a literary conceit stretched so thin we can see right through it.

There are many superficially clever things about Nutshell. Novels narrated from the womb, for instance, are vanishingly rare, so it gets points for originality, though it ultimately justifies not McEwan’s innovation but all other authors’ abstention. McEwan’s decision to create the fetus in his own image—not, of course, physically, but verbally, psychologically, and politically—also ensures that the novel deftly avoids the debate its choice of narrator seems most likely to provoke: it is not in any way a novel about abortion. There is no effort, no pretense, no desire evident in Nutshell to engage with the issue of fetal personhood. Nutshell is not narrated by anyone’s definition of a baby: it is a tale told by a 70-year-old curmudgeon incongruously returned to the womb.

nainawecmWhile this characterization may keep McEwan out of some kinds of trouble, it has the unfortunate effect of rationalizing soliloquies from his brainchild that rapidly exhausted my already strained capacity to suspend disbelief on his behalf. A sample:

I knew from the start, when I unwrapped from its cloth of gold my gift of consciousness, that I could have arrived in a worse place in a far worse time. . . . I’ll inherit a condition of modernity (hygiene, holidays, anaesthetics, reading lamps, oranges in winter) and inhabit a privileged corner of the planet—well-fed, plague-free western Europe. . . . My immediate neighbourhood will not be palmy Norway—my first choice on account of its gigantic sovereign fund and generous social provision; nor my second, Italy, on grounds of regional cuisine and sun-blessed decay; and not even my third, France, for its Pinot Noir and jaunty self-regard. Instead I’ll inherit a less than united kingdom ruled by an esteemed elderly queen, where a businessman-prince, famed for his good works, his elixirs (cauliflower essence to purify the blood) and unconstitutional meddling, waits restively for his crown. This will be my home, and it will do. I might have emerged in North Korea, where succession is also uncontested but freedom and food are wanting.

To be fair, Nutshell’s governing gambit clearly signals that McEwan is not aiming for realism, and ultimately it’s not the implausibility of the narrator’s pontification that is the novel’s undoing so much its sheer tedium, as well as the galling transparency of this infant marvel as a proxy for its author. “What I fear is missing out,” the fetus tells us, as he contemplates a possible premature end to his as-yet unrealized life story; “I want to be there on the last page, in my early eighties, frail but sprightly, dancing a jig on the evening of December 31, 2099.” The prospect that he might not know the ending provokes a cascade of tendentious speculation from the fetus about the future McEwan himself will not be around to witness:

In the new book, one of many unresolved plot lines is this: will its nine billion heroes scrape through without a nuclear exchange? . . . Will the Middle East remain in frenzy, will it empty into Europe and alter it for good? Might Islam dip a feverish extremity in the cooling pond of reformation? Might Israel concede an inch or two of desert to those it displaced? Europa’s secular dream of union may dissolve before the old hatreds, small-scale nationalism, financial disaster, discord. Or she might hold her course. I need to know.

mcewannutshellI might forgive this clumsy narrative device if the thinly-disguised authorial presence offered insight, inspiration, or delight, but this talking baby has none of the quirky charm of Bruce Willis as Mikey: instead, he proclaims, speechifies, and sometimes just rants, like a drunk great-uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. Though there are entertaining moments in his commentary, they are not frequent, witty, or surprising enough to compensate for the two cantankerous pages on trigger warnings and “safe spaces” in which, instead of puzzling through the competing demands of principle, justice, and empathy, he just reiterates oversimplified conservative talking points to the tune of “kids these days”:

Should inconvenient opinions hover near me like fallen angels or evil djinn (a mile being too near) I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gamboling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life! I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being by coming too close, breathing on my face, my brain, like unwholesome dogs. . . . 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.

Sophisticated arguments are a strange thing to expect of a fetus, of course, which only underlines that this narrator is a gimmick, not a character. Instead of committing himself fully to the artifice, however, McEwan can’t resist trying to make some of the absurdity rationally explicable. The fetus’s erudition is the result of his mother’s predilection for “podcast lectures, and self-improving audio books.” “I’ve heard it all,” he tells us: “Maggot farming in Utah. Hiking across The Barren. Hitler’s last chance offensive in the Ardennes. Sexual etiquette among the Yanomami. How Poggio Bracciolini rescued Lucretius from oblivion. The physics of tennis.” McEwan also puts some effort into accurately depicting the fetus’s physical environment and sensory experiences, from the “launderette din of stomach and bowels” around him to his cramped quarters in utero: “My limbs are folded hard against my chest, my head is wedged into my only exit. I wear my mother like a tight-fitting cap.”

wombMcEwan is good at this kind of description, precise yet unpredictable, clinical but also evocative. These moments reminded me why I’m a fan: there’s something so satisfying about reading a writer who is manifestly competent and whose prose is endlessly creative without ever being precious. The problem is, though, that once you introduce verisimilitude as a potential standard in this weird fictional world, it lurks continually as a distracting possibility. Thus I found myself puzzling, for example, over whether a fetus could possibly know that its mother’s “trailing hand grips the newel post”—how would that tactile report reach him?—or that her hair one day is not braided but held back by “two plastic devices, highly coloured, I’m sure”—how can he even grasp the concept of “braided,” never mind know that this time she has put some kind of clips in instead? Since to keep reading at all I’ve had to accept the narrator as an infant oenophile (“a joyous, blushful Pinot Noir, or a gooseberried Sauvignon, sets me turning and tumbling across my secret sea”) and a literary sophisticate (“James Joyce’s Ulysses sends her to sleep, even as it thrills me”), I ought to be able to shrug off such pedestrian quibbles, but it is McEwan himself who invites them by purporting to make at least the physiological part of his fantasy scenario believable.

The worst manifestations of McEwan’s impulse towards realism are the novel’s sex scenes, which combine a high degree of gynecological specificity with all the moral and psychological creepiness you would expect from a scenario in which a preternaturally self-aware child physically experiences his mother’s adulterous affair. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose,” he wryly observes:

By this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls. This turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing. My mother goads her lover, whips him on with her fairground shrieks. . . . I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence, with the teeming cream of his banality.

A more subdued later encounter seems to him “a glutinous drowning, like something pedantic crawling through a swamp”—a regrettably memorable image. He can’t help his proximity, but his prurient commentary moves him from unwilling witness to voyeur, and his self-consciousness about his own physical integration with his mother gives these episodes the air of a particularly bizarre and disturbing ménage à trois. “It bothers me,” he says—as his mother goes “down on her knees, taking ‘him,’ as I’ve heard them say, into her mouth”—“that what she swallows will find its way to me as nutrients, and make me just a little like him.”

yorickThe ick factor is high indeed with these incestuous entanglements and exchanges but McEwan has thematic justification for it, as the other obviously clever thing about Nutshell is that it is a reworking of Hamlet, source of both its epigraph and its central plot. The fetal protagonist overhears his mother Trudy scheming with her lover, the unbearably banal Claude, to murder her husband, his brother, the hapless poet John. The narrator, of course, is paralyzed not by indecision but by his gestational age: what’s a helpless fetus to do when made aware of such evil plans? The answer is clear enough in a way, as he realizes: “Don’t let your incestuous uncle and mother poison your father. Don’t waste your precious days idle and inverted. Get born and act!” But how?

There is some interest in the playing out of this story—some suspense, even, at the point when you wonder if their plan will work and whether they will get away with it, or if somehow the fetus will find a way to intervene:

His existence denies my rightful claims to a happy life in the care of both parents. Unless I devise a plan. He has entranced my mother and banished my father. His interests can’t be mine. He’ll crush me. Unless, unless, unless—a wisp of a word, ghostly token of altered fate, bleating little iamb of hope, it drifts across my thoughts like a floater in the vitreous humour of an eye. Mere hope.

Wondering if he can find some way to use his “one morsel of agency,” however, is not the same as caring what becomes of him (or, indeed, of any of them), and the heavy-handed Shakespearean allusions (“as a man, he’s a piece of work”) are just further reminders that the narrator is a project, not a person. There’s also disappointingly little mystery to give the novel forward momentum, and the twist at the end was too little, too late to make the novel engrossing rather than just gross. How much more interesting it would have been if there were a gap between the fetus’s understanding of what he overhears and ours, so we could distance ourselves from the narrator’s annoying perspective and enjoy the pleasurable frisson of dramatic irony. Better yet, imagine the greater tension and higher moral stakes if the fetus’s own survival were on the line—but to put him at overt risk of prenatal death would have been to commit the novel to philosophy instead of farce, to demand from it a gravitas McEwan is clearly not seeking.

nutshellAnd that, for me, is what is finally wrong with Nutshell: it is too self-evidently a diversion for its author—a chance to play, to see where his crazy idea would take him. There’s something manifestly gleeful about the experiment, and that in itself is sometimes amusing. There aren’t many occasions, after all, for lines like “However close you get to others, you can never get inside them, even when you’re inside them.” Yet there’s also something narcissistic about it, not just because the fetus is an impish reflection of his creator but because surely only a writer of McEwan’s stature can get away with something like this—or try to. I don’t begrudge him the attempt, but I found myself unable to be a co-conspirator in this exercise in literary self-gratification.

Rohan Maitzen is an English professor at Dalhousie University and an editor at Open Letters Monthly; she blogs at Novel Readings.