I was relieved to discover, through the Google, that Ian McEwan is only 68. He’s been a part of my consciousness for so long, that I thought he was much older. That had me worried. The idea of a year without a new book by this guy might be too much to bear.
McEwan is one of my favorite writers. Of his 17 works of fiction, I’ve read all but three (“First Love, Last Rites,” “In Between the Sheets” and “Black Dogs”). I have also read three screenplays he wrote early in his career that are fascinating and bizarre. At least one of these works was pulled from a scheduled air date at the last minute, as I understand it, because the censors didn’t know what the hell to make of them. I guess they though there must have been something immoral in the works if they couldn’t understand them.
Most of his works left me marveling at the craft or the story, usually both. I often reread sections, because where he takes us is surprising. Sometimes, truth be told, because I had no idea what point he was making until I worked through it a few times.
I first met McEwan, so to speak, on the pages of the New Yorker’s summer fiction edition many, many years ago. His short story (the name of which I can’t recall) had me mesmerized and I read it several times and pressed it into the unwilling hands of friends and family. That same summer I saw a movie, “The Comfort of Strangers” because I had heard good reviews. The movie credits said it was “Based on the novel by Ian McEwan.” The movie was good, the book—which I bought almost immediately after leaving the theater—was, of course better.
His work is honest almost to a fault. Nothing happens without it becoming a springboard for a philosophical treatise. His favorites are sex, music and politics. But they are also mundane, like this gem from “Solar.”: The essence of a crank was first, to believe that all the world’s problems could be reduced to one and be solved. And second, to go on about it nonstop.” And this, from “Nutshell,” his latest work, (which I’ll get around to writing about as soon as I finish this embarrassing tongue-bath): “Many of the poems my father knows are long, like those famed creations of bank employees The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Waste Land. Trudy continues to tolerate the occasional recitation. For her, a monologue is better than an exchange, preferable to another turn round the unweeded garden of their marriage.”
This seems as good a time as any to dive into “Nutshell,” a reinvention of “Hamlet,” as told by a melancholy fetus. Trudy and Claude (get it?) are lovers who have decided to kill John, Trudy’s husband. But the witness to the crime is John’s unborn son, who absorbs all and tells all from the warmth of Trudy’s womb as he waits to be born.
John is a poet and a publisher of poetry—to explain the quote above—and Trudy’s had enough of his mediocrity. Claude, an intellectual lightweight who wouldn’t know the difference between The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Waste Land, is wealthy and has a plan to bring in millions, though it involves John’s house which he is not willing to sell.
It sounds dumb, like the story you write in high school where the narrator turns out to be the walls of a room in which a horrible scene has taken place. But after a chapter or two, I was captivated by both story and narrator. What’s fascinating is that the child is a completely unreliable narrator—he can’t know what anyone looks like or what they wear or what their inflection means or even that his father is a crappy poet—but he’s completely believable. Plus, he’s all we have, so if he says his mother is nervous, we have to believe it. In fact, the story is so compelling that this realization didn’t come to me until I was well into the book.
What’s less interesting is the unborn child’s take on issues of the day, his knowledge of wine (he likes the one that gives him a better buzz) and politics, which are surprising in line with what McEwan weaves through all his books. McEwan seems to imply we all come into the world with viewpoints and opinions and knowledge but doesn’t explain where all this knowledge goes when we are born. It’s an interesting concept and one I found myself thinking about and creating my own mortar for McEwan’s cracks.
This short novel is McEwan in a nutshell: A genius with flaws who writes plots so well you root for a woman to kill her perfectly nice husband, and who makes you believe a fetus has the insight and conscience of all of humankind in his DNA, a writer who can be laughably pretentious, or who is, perhaps, just intellectually intimidating.
“Nutshell” shows one of today’s best fiction writers is still taking chances and making them work, after a lifetime of writing. That’s reason enough to read it.
(Epilogue: Years later, I came across that “short story” that introduced me to McEwan. It was, in fact, a chapter of his novel “Enduring Love,” about an insane man’s obsessive love. This novel has one of the most breathtaking opening chapters I’ve ever read. I feel compelled to add, however, he lays an egg at the end.)