When's the Last Time a Novel Truly Surprised You?

By Jennifer Levasseur

Sometimes we liked to be fooled. We enjoy the trick even if we know—because we know—that we’re witnessing an illusion. It’s a pleasing intellectual exercise to understand that something is impossible and then to watch that impossibility unfold before our eyes as not only a solution to a question but as a thrilling somersault that defies the laws of physics.

The premise of Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell, is of course preposterous. When I first heard that the narrator is a fetus, the sole witness to his mother’s infidelity with her husband’s brother and their plot against him, I rolled my eyes. I committed to opening the book, with the expectation that I’d get five pages in and toss it aside.

The fact that this narrator is not only unborn but as worldly as an erudite philosopher (with great, nuanced taste in wine and an understanding of Tuscan dishes and Stalin’s politics) is ridiculous—nay, impossible. But in McEwan’s hands it’s as exciting as Perec’s Oulipolean novel, A Void, written entirely without the letter e.

Here’s an example of the narrator’s lush, wry style as he experiences the world through the womb:

No one seems to want to read aloud the label so I’m forced to make a guess, and hazard an Échézeaux Grand Cru. Put Claude’s penis or, less stressful, a gun to my head to name the domaine, I would blurt out la Romanée-Conti, for the spicy cassis and black cherry alone. The hint of violets and fine tannins suggest that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves, through a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009. But I’ll never know. As the brooding ensemble makes its way to me, through me, I find myself, in the midst of horror, in reflective mood.

Reading Nutshell brings to mind watching a master magician handcuffed under water in a cage with minutes to go before his oxygen runs out: this shouldn’t work and there’s no reason for it, but witnessing him wriggle out of his chains sets the pulse racing. I found myself grinning at McEwan’s exploits, and he won my admiration despite my desire to dislike the gimmick.

And why—when you’ve already won most of the major prizes, have a guaranteed bestseller every time you publish and have proven yourself among the best writers working in English—not attempt to fail miserably, as Beckett might have it. Is there any McEwan novel a publisher would reject? And how lucky are we as readers that this is the case? He keeps pushing the art form, tugging at the notions of what we’ll tolerate and even grow to laud.

What translates Nutshell from strange stunt to brilliant execution is its sly retelling of Hamlet. The unnamed baby boy stands in not just for Hamlet but for all of those Shakespearean characters hiding in closets and behind doors as villains proclaim their nefarious desires. The baby, who schemes and attempts to steer his host, vacillates among blind love and disgust for his mother and uncle and fear for and disappointment in his father. His soliloquies sing as he hides nearly out of sight while discovering the worst of all of those he relies on:

What then are my chances, a blind, dumb invert, an almost-child, still living at home, secured by apron strings of arterial and venous blood to the would-be murderess?

But shush! The conspirators are talking.

Nutshell marks a return to form for McEwan. He’s brash, daring, playful, willing to risk his reputation on what might have been a lark but is through his bravado a masterful display of reinvention, of language-drunk exultation, of the fun of making something new out of something we thought we all knew. McEwan knows better than to invoke the most famous of Hamlet's lines, the one trotted out in too many gags, but its notion underlies the entirety of the novel. What better symbol for this existential question that a nearly full-term fetus entirely at the mercy of unseen hands and within a hostile body? One with a full, sophisticated consciousness who understands the difficulty of living even before he takes his first breath?

The baby speaks for all of us striving to understand our existences, to discover why we are and whether we should be:

Certain artists in print or paint flourish, like babies-to-be, in confined spaces. Their narrow subjects may confound or disappoint some. … 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 endeavor, is just a speck in the universe of possible things. And even this universe may be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes. 




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