Thursday, 1 June 2017

Ian McEwan's Nutshell

Ian McEwan's latest novel Nutshell, which is a riff on Hamlet complete with a foetus-narrator, provided Minervans with a lot to think about. While it was (almost) universally loved, we didn't necessarily come to a lot of consensus about what it was all about, or why McEwan did what he did, but we did enjoy discussing it.

The plot briefly. The novel commences with:
So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting, waiting and wondering who I'm in, what I'm in for.
The Hamlet motif reveals itself early as he (our foetus that is) starts to realise that "a vile enterprise" is being conspired by his mother and her lover Claude, and when also in the first chapter, our foetus starts to ponder on his existence - "to be" he wonders. What does this "being" mean for him? From this point the plot of this murder-mystery novel develops - with the first half focused on "will they do it?" and the second half on "will they get away with it?" - while at the same time our foetus ponders questions about life in general and the world he is soon to be born into.

The things we enjoyed

We found it clever, twisty, exciting, and thought the language was brilliant. We like McEwan's compact, tight writing. We agree that McEwan is great at openings, and that this book's opening sentence was yet another such opening. We loved McEwan's wordsmithery. It was very funny at times, such as the foetus' attempted suicide by squeezing the cord around his neck, not realising that as he lost consciousness he would let go.

We enjoyed it as a retelling of Hamlet, including the names Trudy (Gertrude), Claude (Claudius), and the ghost appearing.

We found the precocious foetus-narrator fun to read. Even those who were originally sceptical about the idea found themselves drawn in, while others felt it was McEwan playing with that question we all have about what DO foetuses experience of the outside world. We liked that he was not as easily taken in by, say Elodie, his father's possible lover, as Trudy and Claude were. And we laughed at his learning about the world through Radio 4, at how he'd give his mother a kick in the night to encourage insomnia and the turning on of the radio.

We liked that Trudy finally saw Claude for what he was. We thought Claude was a well-drawn character. He's cliche-ridden, dull, a man who

whistles continually, not songs, but TV jingles, ringtones, who brightens a morning with Nokia's mockery of Tárrega [...] Not everyone knows what it is to have your father's rival's penis inches from your nose. But at this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it.

We wondered why the house in which Trudy and Claude lived was so squalid, but one member suggested it reflects their characters or personalities.

We enjoyed the "Inspector Columbo" or "Vera" style detective who lulled them into thinking she was on their side, before dropping her real ideas.

A member commented on enjoying the pithy statements/questions at the end of every chapter. In other hands, this would signal a potboiler but it worked - it was part of McEwan's game, in a way.

What is it about?

It's a small, but complex book, and we spent quite a bit of time discussing its meaning. Why did McEwan write it, we wondered? One member, in fact, said that when she got to the end, she wondered what it was all about, and then decided she didn't care because "it was fabulous".

It contains much philosophical discussion, another said, about the Enlightenment and the end of rationalism, about the undermining of a scientific understanding of, or approach to, the world.

Other ideas we had about its themes included:
  • the political challenges of the modern world: breakdown of both socialist and capitalist nations; the problem of climate change; the increasing loss of liberty in the face of security; the nuclear threat. Many of these are ongoing McEwan concerns.
  • a discussion of innocence. Our foetus-narrator sees himself as innocent but fears being implicated in a plot he can't avoid. 
  • exploration of acting in anger/haste. Trudy seems to regret pretty immediately, what she's done.
  • the idea that murdering the poet-father represents a triumph of materialism over things of the spirit.
One member liked the following quote, and suggested it links to Hamlet's considerations about life/existence:

It's already clear to me how much of life is forgotten, even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence. When she's no longer twenty-eight and pregnant and beautiful, or even free, she won't remember the way she set down the spoon and the sound it made on the slate, the frock she wore today, the touch of her sandal's thong between her toes, the summer's warmth, the white noise of the city beyond the house walls, a short burst of birdsong by a closed window. All gone, already.

Some reservations

One member in particular had some reservations. She became annoyed by voice of foetus, finding him too smart-alecky, particularly with all his wine-talk. She agreed that McEwan is a good story-teller but felt the book became a bit strained in the second half.

Why choose a foetus as a narrator?

This question challenged us quite a bit. Our answers included, that:
  • we are all interested in what foetuses in the womb experience of the outside world and this is McEwan's imaginative exploration of that.
  • it enabled McEwan to have an innocent narrator, "a blank slate", who was able to comment on the state of the world.
  • the disregard shown for the foetus, by both his mother, uncle and father in their behaviour and planning, is ironic - a child is at the centre of the book but the people most responsible for the child aren't child-centred. Does this also reflect our current world's treatment of children? 
  • it presents the idea that the child represents the future, a future that the others don't seem to be interested in, suggesting that society is not responding to the new world.
  • it is an ironic reflection on Hamlet's inaction - our foetal-Hamlet is physically restrained so can't act his mind.
  • it enables the foetus to explore that question of whether we should bring a child into the modern world. (Our foetus says "yes")
We also discussed the reliability of the foetus as a narrator. Is McEwan playing with the idea of an unreliable narrator. Is he unreliable?

Overall, a good read, a good bookgroup book, which provided an entertaining and engaging night's discussion.