Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

Freud’s repressed realm of bitter little embryos, spying from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

There’s the epigraph to my article, and maybe the spark that later ignited in Ian McEwan’s brain; here’s the epigraph (from Hamlet) to Nutshell: “Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.”

A Teller of the Tale, Who Is Striving To Be

Ian McEwan specializes in great beginnings and great endings to his fictions. Who has ever written a better bravura opening then this one to Nutshell, Random House, 2016, 197 pp: “So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against my belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.”

Okay, so we have a fetus narrating the story, and this is a fully conscious and articulate fetus, one, furthermore, who has vast knowledge of the world out there before he—if he is a ‘he’—is even in it. His many observations on the twenty-first century realm awaiting his entry are astute, perspicacious, worthy of his creator—who, obviously, has lent his narrator his own perspicacity, education, wit, vocabulary. The fetus is unnamed. For purposes of this review we can call him FN (fetus narrator). FN is very close to full term, about to be born, almost a babe in arms. His parents, father, mother, stepfather (uncle) have apparently given no consideration to what “it” (they call him “it”) will be called.

The main protagonists already in earthly life are pregnant Trudy Cairncross, her husband John Cairncross, and his brother Claude Cairncross. As FN sees the situation, “My mother has preferred my father’s brother, cheated her husband, ruined her son. My uncle has stolen his brother’s wife, deceived his nephew’s father, grossly insulted his sister-in-law’s son.” Since the whole novel takes off on the intrigue of Hamlet, Trudy and Claude are pale stand-ins for royalty, the original Gertrude and Claudius. Twenty-eight-year-old Trudy has good looks, but apparently not much of anything else. She is a strangely blank character. If she has an education or profession it is never mentioned. The action takes place in London, 2015, but none of the characters appear to use social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, not even e-mail. Odd. Is the whole weirdly anachronistic story, this skewed murder mystery, only a bad dream (see Hamlet epitaph above) in the brain of a fetus who has just read Hamlet and Macbeth? Or in the brain of a writer named McEwan? Food for thought.

Claude is a dull man who has prospered financially in property development. He has always envied his older brother John—not a king, but a poet—whose accomplishments from early youth have left poor Claude perpetually in the shadows. Now Claude has made a lot more money than John, who teaches poetry, writes his own verse, and runs a modest publishing house. We get mixed messages on how good a poet John really is, but no matter to Claude, who can’t get over his envy. Basically, Nutshell rehashes the plot of Hamlet from a new angle: what if the mother’s and uncle’s adultery had begun while Hamlet was still in the womb? And what if Hamlet were already conscious in utero and could spy on Gertrude and Claudius as they plot the murder of his father? And then desperately wrack his uterine mind for a way to prevent it.

Why Do I Have To Be Born? But I Want To Be Born

FN’s other, more personal problem is ontological. “My idea was To be. Or if not that, its grammatical variant, is. This was my aboriginal notion and here’s the crux—is. Just that. In the spirit of Es muss sein. The beginning of conscious life was the end of illusion, the illusion of non-being, and the eruption of the real. The triumph of realism over magic, of is over seems. My mother is involved in a plot, and therefore I am too, even if my role might be to foil it. Or if I, reluctant fool, come to term too late, then to avenge it.” This passage about hoping to be shows up early, on p. 3, and here, as well as throughout the rest of the novel, FN comments on the state of the world he hopes to join.

Sometimes he is optimistic: “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.” Sometimes pessimistic: “will [the earth’s] nine billion heroes scrape through without a nuclear exchange? Think of it as a contact sport. Line up the teams. India versus Pakistan, Iran versus Saudi Arabia, Israel versus Iran, USA versus China, Russia versus USA and NATO, North Korea versus the rest.”

Whether hopeful or not, FN insists of having his chance to exist: “Give me my go, my afterlife, paradise on earth, even a hell, a thirteenth floor [in an orphanage where he fears he will end up]. I can take it. I believe in life after birth . . . . Three score and ten? Wrap them up, I’ll take them.”

In his view the book of the twentieth century is “a grim read, at least until halfway.” Hopeful FN looks forward to reading someday, My History of the 21st Century, which will conclude with a passage featuring his eighty-year-old self, dancing a jig on Dec. 31, 2099. Es muss sein, it must be so, or at least he hopes so. Part of the fun of the book is the way a fetus has knowledge of a passage from Beethoven’s compositions—or has he read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which features the same German phrase? He also cites passages in French, or Latin, such as sunt lacrimae rerum, which, so the Internet tells me, comes from the writings of the Roman poet Virgil, 1st Century BC: “There are tears in things [life is tragic], and mortality teaches the mind.” FN appears as well to have read, enjoyed James Joyce’s Ulysses, citing one passage, “He kills his mother but he can’t wear grey trousers.” Then again, Trudy and Claude, stressed out by their murderous plotting, drink wine incessantly, and FN has already developed a taste for fine wine, “decanted through a healthy placenta.” FN the narrator is drunk, or at least half drunk, throughout half or more of the action.

In his strivings to emerge into being FN faces one enormous obstacle: nobody wants him. Not only has no one bothered about considering names for the about-to-be child. No one appears, as well, to have done the normal tests that precede practically any birth in modern civilized London. They could have determined the sex of the fetus by using genetic testing, ultrasound, Ramzi’s Method, etc. No mention is made of any of these tests. What about amniocentesis? Nope. They apparently don’t know if the child will be a boy or girl; furthermore, they do not care. In one respect this is the strangest book imaginable featuring a mother about to give birth for the first time. Why? Because Trudy, the mother, appears to have few or no maternal instincts. She is so entangled in a murder plot, conniving with her brother-in-law/lover, to murder her husband—and inherit the old family manse, now worth millions—that joyous anticipation of the soon-to-arrive bundle of joy is totally eclipsed.

Mother love and love of son. Most men have mother problems only after they are born—take Elvis, for example, or Norman Bates. FN’s mother issues get a head start; they begin in the womb. Already FN loves his mother, although he knows her “only from the inside.” Does she love him? He has his doubts. For one thing, throughout the course of the action she indulges herself in alcohol to relieve nervous tension. This shows scant consideration for the near-term baby in her womb. In addition, FN has heard unsettling things in the podcasts he listens to through the uterine walls. “My affair with Trudy isn’t going well. I thought I could take her love for granted. But I’ve heard biologists debating at dawn. Pregnant mothers must fight the tenants of their wombs. Nature, a mother herself, ordains a struggle for resources that may be needed to nurture my future sibling rivals . . . The biologists also suggest that my father’s wisest move is to trick another man into raising his child while he—my father!—distributes his likeness among other women. So bleak, so loveless.”

What about Uncle Claude? Does he give a fig for the child about to arrive? No. Not a fig. He assumes that after the birth the creature will be disposed of as soon as possible, “placed somewhere.” Claude is the enemy. “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.”

The original Hamlet is tormented by visions of adultery between his mother and uncle, but poor FN, rightful son and heir, is forced to tolerate the actual adultery pounding against his head. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgment, 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. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, 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. Then, brain-damaged, I’ll think and speak like him. I’ll be the son of Claude.”

Hilarious stuff, this passage, and equally as funny and entertaining is the scene describing how FN, once again weathering the assault of Claude in missionary position, makes an unsuccessful attempt at suicide by strangling himself with the umbilical cord.

But surely John Cairncross, poet and thinker, owner of “an impoverished publishing house,” genuine father of the fetus inside Trudy, will stand up for his unborn son. No. This becomes clear in the scene when John appears at his former home and lays out all his cards for the lovers, his wife and brother. In planning for his future with the owl poet Elodie, in magnanimously conceding Trudy’s future with Claude, John has not one word to say on the fate of the child about to be born. “What was I in my father’s peroration? Dead. Head-first in a burial mound within his hated ex-wife’s gut. Not even a mention, not in an aside, not even dismissed as an irrelevance . . . In a rush towards his own rebirth, he discarded mine. Fathers and sons. I heard it once and won’t forget. What binds them in nature? An instant of blind rut.”

At this point unwanted FN lapses into despair. He can see no way to save his father. If his mother and uncle are implicated in the murder he’ll end up in prison; if not, he’ll end up in an orphanage. “To start life in a cell, bliss unknown, boredom a fought-for privilege. And if they succeed—then it’s the Vale of Swat. I see no scheme, no plausible route to any conceivable happiness. I wish never to be born . . .”

Late in the novel, when the police come to question Claude and Trudy about the murder, they do not even bother asking questions almost obligatory in the face of a pregnant woman: Boy or girl? When’s he due? Nobody cares.

Who and What Am I? Whose Am I? More Ontological Uncertainty

All of the major characters seem to take for granted that FN is the natural son of John Cairncross. The very narration of the book makes that assumption. But there is a certain vagueness in the text. When exactly did the affair between Trudy and Claude begin? If that is specified in the novel I missed it. How can everyone be so sure that FN is not the offspring of illicit seed? Although FN himself never entertains such dismal thoughts, there are hints at several points: “My uncle—a quarter of my genome, of my father’s a half, but no more like my father than I to Virgil or Montaigne. What despicable part of myself is Claude and how will I know? I could be my own brother and deceive myself as he deceived his.” On the issue of whose, in the final pages of the book, when Trudy tells Claude he must aid her with the midwifery, he answers, “Not my baby,” but then again, what does he know? he who is portrayed throughout the text as a dunce. Is John Cairncross’ indifference toward his future son a hint that he, too, suspects that the child is Claude’s? Hmm.

What about the gender of the fetus FN? A passage at the beginning of Ch. 15 apparently offers proof that FN is a male: “Early in my conscious life one of my fingers, not then subject to my influence, brushed past a shrimp-like protuberance between my legs.” This passage goes on to discuss what is called “a diverting issue in neuroscience known as the binding problem,” then arrives at a conclusion that leaves FN disillusioned: “No one exclaims at the moment of one’s dazzling coming-out, It’s a person! Instead: It’s a girl. It’s a boy. Pink or blue—a minimal improvement on Henry Ford’s offer of cars of any colour so long as they were black. Only two sexes. I was disappointed. If human bodies, minds, fates are so complex, if we are free like no other mammal, why limit the range?”

Throughout the novel the narrator, as well as his parents, apparently see FN as a male, his parents’ son, but once again, despite the single mention of the shrimp-like organ, room is left for doubt. As mentioned above, Trudy apparently has never gone through the normal prenatal care that would include tests establishing the sex. She, as well as all the others, speak of FN as “it.”

Ian McEwan once got in trouble for declaring publicly that most men born with a dick are males. FN’s plea for “It’s a person” is then, perhaps, McEwan’s concession to modern proponents of genderlessness: none of us is either here nor there; we’re all somewhere in between. But as if resisting recruitment into the shibboleths of modern times, the author, only a page later, has his fetus narrator lash out against modern youth, with its “new dispensation in the matter of blue and pink. Be careful what you wish for. Here’s a new politics in university life . . . A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young. They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities. The decline of the West in new guise perhaps. Or the exaltation and liberation of the self. A social-media site famously proposes seventy-one gender options—neutrois, two spirit, bigender . . . any colour you like, Mr. Ford. Biology is not destiny after all, and there’s cause for celebration . . . 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.”

The rant about modern coddled youth goes on for two solid pages. “Something too much of this,” as Hamlet would say, but maybe one purpose of this long digression is to throw up a smokescreen around a prominent issue: Is FN a boy, or a girl, or even neither fish nor fowl? “Wait, wait,” screams the impatient reader of this review. “FN is a boy, and you’re talking nonsense. The evidence of the shrimp cannot be ignored. For all that, there’s an easy way to settle this. After all, the book ends with FN’s birth, his emergence into the air of the novel on this side of the womb, where we can take a good look between his/her legs to see if she/he has a wiener. These days maybe that is not definitive proof, but it’s good enough for me. Re-read carefully the last few pages of the book, p.192-97.”

I just did. In giving Claude instructions about how to help her with the birth, Trudy still uses the word “it.” “When it comes out it’ll be face down. You’ll pick it up, both hands, very gently, supporting the head, and place it on me . . . . Don’t worry about the cord. It’ll stop beating on its own and the baby will start to breathe. You’ll put a couple of towels over it to keep it warm.” In the throes of being born, FN still manages a flash of resentment: “I listen closely, intent on learning what to do. Duck under a towel. Breathe. Don’t say a word. But it! Surely, pink or blue!” This notwithstanding his earlier assertion that having only two sexes limits the range.

Right after the birth: “I’m breathing. Delicious. My advice to newborns: don’t cry, look around, taste the air. I’m in London. The air is good.” But nobody says, It’s a boy, or It’s a girl, or It’s a person. Nobody bothers to look in between the legs of newborn FN; therefore, we, the readers, are left not knowing for sure either. Are we prisoners of our own easy assumptions? Do all babies with penises have to be males? Are we “woodcocks to our own springes”? Or McEwan’s springes? Maybe.

The Fetus As Writer

Probably the most amazing thing about FN is that he, a fetus, is already an accomplished writer of skilled narrative fiction. His vocabulary includes words such as “purulent,” and he has knowledge of rhetorical devices—e.g., aporia, “a professing, or matter about which one professes, to be at a loss what course to pursue, where to begin, what to say.” His story advances, as does a good work of fiction, with vital information withheld from the reader, with certain hints of what is to come, foreshadowing. For example, mention is made of smoothies early on; only later do we learn that John Cairncross’ favorite smoothie is the Tropical Dawn (bananas, pineapple, apple, mint, wheat germ), purchased from the store called, with cruel irony, Smoothie Heaven. The conspirators mix it with antifreeze and use this concoction to poison John. The “owl poet,” apparently John’s mistress, is alluded to several times; she steps into the narrative as a central character only in Chapter Seven.

On p. 97 budding author FN declares, “I might try my hand at a monograph.” Here are his musing about murder mysteries, which Nutshell parodies throughout: “This is how it is, how stories work, when we know of murders from their inception. We can’t help siding with the perpetrators and their schemes, we wave from the quayside as their little ship of bad intent departs. Bon voyage! It’s not easy, it’s an achievement, to kill someone and go free. The datum of success is ‘the perfect murder.’ And perfection is hardly human. On board, things will go wrong, someone will trip on an uncoiled rope, the vessel will drift too far west of south. Hard work, and all at sea.”

Sometimes, as a way of consoling himself or escaping dire reality, FN creates totally imaginary scenes. Aware that Uncle Claude has gone to the office of John Cairncross, to offer him money—this is in Ch. 4—FN imagines their encounter: “to divert myself I send my thoughts ahead to spy on them. Purely an exercise of the imagination. Nothing here is real.” What follows is a fictional scene (within a fiction) of two pages, describing the interaction of the brothers, how John refuses the loan, how John reads from a poem about an owl by Elodie, how John manifests the same casual disdain for his younger brother that has been consistent since their early childhood together.

Although the scene is totally invented, it is of a piece with the rest of the story. It manages some more foreshadowing, of Elodie’s role later on. “Blood-wise fatal bellman,” quotes fictitious John from her fictitious poem—taking off on a line from Macbeth: “It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman”—and that bellwoman is what Elodie is later to be, instrumental in befuddling the murderers and turning the police against them. Elodie is a conundrum, the most complex character in the book—“this is a complicated young woman,” says the police inspector—a melody with the first letter, M for Murder, missing. Accidentally, or with snide purpose, Trudy once refers to her as “Threnody.” She, Trudy, probably is unaware of the meaning of the word, but John enlightens her. A threnody is a funereal dirge, playing later in the background score—in the film of Nutshell that will soon be made—as the murderous couple, aware they are about to be arrested, make frantic plans to escape England for some country without an extradition treaty.

After making up this scene, FN imagines the possible benefits of being a writer of fiction: “I escaped over the wire without ladder or rope, free as a bird, leaving behind my now and my here. My limiting truth was untrue: I can be gone any time I like, throw Claude out of the house, visit my father in his office, be a loving, invisible snooper. Are movies as good as this? I’ll find out. One could make a living devising such excursions. But the actual, the circumscribed real, is absorbing too and I’m impatient for Claude to return and tell us what really happened. My version is certain to be wrong.”

FN is right; his version is wrong—his father took the loan—but despite the inaccuracy of the invented scene, it fits well into the tenor of the tale as a whole. Much later in the book (Ch. 20), FN takes refuge in another fictional scene. “I’m asking myself, what is it that I most want now. Anything I want. Realism not a limiting factor. Cut the ropes, set the mind free. I can answer without thinking—I’m going through the main gate.” What follows is a conscious, or subconscious parody of the ghost scenes from Hamlet. For two pages the fiction writer FN conjures his father back from the grave and has his father’s gruesome corpse, still showing signs of the poisoning—confront the murderers.

There are numerous other examples of how FN makes things up as he writes. At Elodie’s first appearance in the book, he cannot, of course see what she looks like, how she is dressed, so he turns to his imagination for help: “By nocturnal association I dress her in tight-fitting black leather jacket and jeans, let her be young, pale, pretty, her own woman.” Only after he is born, in the final pages of the book, when he lays eyes on the murderous couple for the first time, does FN edit his descriptions of Uncle Claude—“Smaller than I cast him, with narrow shoulders and a foxy look”—and his mother—“hair darker than I thought, the eyes a paler green.”

As FN speculates in one philosophical digression, a true artist does not need much space to work in; a true artist can shun the macrocosms and concentrate on microcosms: “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 even this universe may be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes.”

One more thing about FN’s imaginative cast of mind, how he is a consummate creative writer before he is even born. He identifies with John Cairncross, his father, he exults in the poetry his father loves to quote, and his artistic vibes are constantly under assault by the unimaginative, third-rate nature of Uncle Claude’s speech and thought.

Hamlet and Macbeth

Has FN read Shakespeare? He must have, since he knows lines from Hamlet and Macbeth, cites them or plays with them, adapting them to his own narrative. The plotline of Nutshell is something of a retelling, recasting of the Hamlet plot, but sometimes it seems to have more in common with Macbeth. McEwan is subtle in his use of allusions, sometimes letting a scene tiptoe around the original text from Shakespeare, never quite coming into contact with it. Such is the scene in Ch. 20, when FN conjures up the appearance of his father’s ghost. This ghost scene with dead father—so it turns out—has little in common with the ones in Hamlet. Here John Cairncross returns to murder his perfidious brother, then kisses his wife Trudy “long and hard, with icy putrefying lips.”

Most often the connection with Shakespeare is made through tiny bits and pieces, fragments of quotations that say to the reader, “See, look. Here’s Hamlet again; or Macbeth. This begins as early as the second page of the book: “I count myself an innocent, but it seems I’m party to a plot. My mother, bless her unceasing, loudly squelching heart, seems to be involved. Seems, mother? No, it is. You are. You are involved.” Hamlet, 1.2:76. “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’”

More examples, first from Macbeth: (1) Nutshell, first chapter: “they’re planning a dreadful event. Should it go wrong, I’ve heard them say, their lives will be ruined. They believe that if they’re to proceed, they should act quickly and soon.” Lady Macbeth, I.7: “If it were done when ‘tis done then ‘twere well it were done quickly.” (2) Inarticulate Claude, unaware, surely, that it’s Lady Macbeth he’s trying to quote: “We’ll stick our courage to the screwing whatever” (Ch. 13). Lady Macbeth, 1.7: “But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail.” (3) See above, the passage about the owl as fatal bellman. Macbeth, 2.2:5-6.

Then from Hamlet: (1) Claude and Trudy. “Sometimes he’ll call her his mouse” (Ch. 3); “Yes, I was there when he tempted her again to bed, called her his mouse, pinched her nipples hard, filled her cheeks with his lying breath and cliché-bloated tongue” (Ch. 16). Hamlet, 3.4: 182-84: “Not this, by no means, that I bid you do: Let the bloat King tempt you again to bed, Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse.” (2) “My uncle—a quarter of my genome, of my father’s a half, but no more like my father than I to Virgil or Montaigne” (Ch. 4); Hamlet, 1.2, 151-54: “my uncle, my father’s brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules.” (3) Claude: “What’s it to. Erm. Be?” (Ch. 4). To be or not to. (4) After FN gives Trudy hard kicks with his heels, “’Oh, oh, little mole,’ my mother calls out in a sweet, maternal voice. ‘He’s waking up’” (Ch. 10); Hamlet, 1.5, while Hamlet is trying to get Horatio and Marcellus to swear they will say nothing about the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the ghost fulminates beneath the scene, repeating the word, “Swear,” and “Swear by his sword.” In his new, jokey mode, Hamlet replies, “Well said, old mole!”

(5) Here’s a long passage (beginning of Ch. 10) that veers in and out of a mix of Hamlet’s dialogue at its most gloomy: “There was a time when Claude’s exit line might have made me smile. But lately, don’t ask why, I’ve no taste for comedy, no inclination to exercise, even if I had the space, no delight in fire or earth, in words that once revealed a golden world of majestical stars, the beauty of poetic apprehension, the infinite joy of reason. These admirable radio talks and bulletins, the excellent podcasts that moved me, seem at best hot air, at worst a vaporous stench. The brave polity I’m soon to join, the noble congregation of humanity, its customs, gods and angels, its fiery ideas and brilliant ferment, no longer thrill me. A weight bears down heavily on the canopy that wraps my little frame. There’s hardly enough of me to form one small animal, still less to express a man. My disposition is to stillborn sterility, then to dust.”

Compare Hamlet, his first soliloquy, 1.2: “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world;” his speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, 2.2: “indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament; this majestical roof fretted with golden fire; why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”

(6) In the last act of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet dies and “The rest is silence” (his final words). FN is born into his fretful world just moments before his mother is to be arrested for murder, and “the rest is chaos” (the final line in Nutshell).

I wonder how many other allusions to Shakespeare in Nutshell that I have missed. Here’s one to King Lear: “Why would the world configure itself so harshly? Among much else, people are sociable and kind. Ripeness isn’t everything” (Ch. 4). King Lear: “Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: ripeness is all.”

The Murder Plot and The Parody of a Murder Mystery

Nutshell involves a pale refraction of the Hamlet plot wrapped up in a take-off on a murder mystery. In the genre of the murder mystery novel, imperfect people are always perpetrating the “perfect crime.” Note to potential murderers: when preparing all the “evidence” to be left behind for police and forensics experts at the scene of the crime—items that will “prove” the fact of suicide—at least one of the items will end up igniting like a bomb, blowing up your whole carefully plotted scheme and implicating you in the murder. In Nutshell the bomb that goes off is in the planted gloves of the murdered man.

While the insensitive murderers celebrate their victory with an act of sexual intercourse, disdaining the danger to a fetus almost at full term, their fate is already sealed. Elodie the owl poet has something to do with this, although we never learn exactly how she has proceeded and what she has said to direct the police toward the culprits.

In murder mysteries and Hollywood films, killers behave in ways that killers in life seldom do. On the very day after their crime they are shown blithely skipping along down the street, whistling “Dixie” off tune, as if murder had no private psychological consequences. Since McEwan, however, writes literary fiction, he is careful to give us an example of how things really work. At one point John Cairncross appears about to leave the kitchen, where the conspirators have prepared a drink laced with poison for him. Trudy’s loving performance at that critical moment, her recollection for her husband of the good times they once shared, persuades him to drink the fatal toast.

Her treacherous behavior here is truly worthy of her mentor, Lady Macbeth, but after the deed is done she collapses into a remorseful funk. Did I just do that? Could I have done such a thing? No. I want a chance to make the choice again; this time I won’t kill my husband John. What’s to make of all this? Well, for one thing, her behavior rings true. People are complicated, and, as FN writes, “However close you get to others, you can never get inside them, even when you’re inside them.”

Of course, in the Hamlet plot both Gertrude and Claudius are wracked by guilt and remorse. So too are both Macbeths. In Nutshell Trudy is the remorseful one, while Claude’s stupidity and solipsism shields him: “Claude, unlike Trudy, owns his crime. This is a Renaissance man, a Machiavel, an old school villain, who believes he can get away with murder. The world doesn’t come to him through a haze of the subjective; it comes refracted by stupidity and greed, bent as through a glass of water, but etched on a screen before the inner eye, a lie as sharp and bright as truth. Claude doesn’t know he’s stupid. If you’re stupid, how can you tell?”

The author is also particularly good in describing how Trudy deals with her remorse, how she finds ways to rationalize her way out of guilt: “Her status as a murderer is a fact, an item in the world outside herself. But that’s old thinking. She affirms, she identifies as innocent. Even as she strains to clean up traces in the kitchen, she feels blameless and therefore is—almost. Her grief, her tears, are proof of probity. She’s beginning to convince herself with her story of [John’s] depression and suicide. She can almost believe the sham evidence in the car. Only persuade herself and she’ll deceive with ease and consistency. Lies will be her truth” (Ch. 15).

This line is reinforced three chapters later, when Trudy works on the fiction she has concocted for the police: “She’s memorizing her memories. The transcription errors will be in her favor. They’ll be a helpful cushion at first, on their way to becoming the truth. She could also tell herself—she didn’t buy the glycol, go to Judd Street, mix the drinks, plant stuff in the car, dump the blender. She cleaned up the kitchen—not against the law. Convinced, she’ll be liberated from conscious guile and may stand a chance. The effective lie, like the masterly golf swing, is free of self-awareness” (Ch. 18).

So it goes something like this: Did I kill somebody? No. That was somebody else who did that. I could never have done such a thing. I feel sorry, so sorry for the murder victim. He/she did not deserve such a fate, but I’m not to blame, etc., etc. You keep this inner monologue going long enough and you really come to believe it. Now we can understand you, O.J. We comprehend how you could say, “Every morning when I’m shaving I look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘Whoever killed Nicole is still out there, still at large; we’ve got to find that bastard, bring him to justice.’”

The Play’s The Thing

When I was a professor of Russian literature I would sometimes pause in the middle of a class, smile beatifically, and announce to the students in front of me: “Can there be anything better in the whole wide world than reading Russian literature?” The puzzled mouths of my students would gape in astonishment; they didn’t get it. Many of them, in fact, had never learned to read literary fiction; it takes practice and deep application of your deepest creative neurons. What I meant was the pure aesthetic pleasure derived from reading great works of art.

What is literary fiction for? To teach us more about how the world works, how human psychology operates? Maybe. To enlighten us, make us better persons, more moral? I doubt it. Literary fiction might sometimes even inspire immorality. Is it about “getting” the message of the book? Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Adultery doesn’t pay.” Ah, now I understand. Or finding the “symbols”: this symbolizes that, and that this. Now I get it. No, you don’t. The greatest reason for reading great literary fiction lies in the pleasure. The joy in the act of reading.

Nutshell is a small package of pure pleasure. You mount up on McEwan’s pony, sit behind him in the saddle and gallop along with him. He’s enjoying the ride, immensely; so are you. What incredible play of the artistic imagination! How it feels to be a fetus, as told by an incredibly well-educated and erudite fetus. What’s it like to be in a womb, in a woman, upside down? The examples are rife: getting drunk on fine French wine that permeates the placenta, taking a shower (“the thrumming warmth of speeding droplets”), sunbathing (“a penumbral coral glow, a prolonged tropical dusk, dully illuminates my inland sea and its trillion drifting fragments”), being assaulted by an alien phallus that pounds on your head, and, of course, being born, that terrifying experience that we all forget. Or do we totally?

Certainly dour, serious-minded readers—the risible impaired—will object to some scenes on grounds of scientific accuracy. Can a fetus talk? Duh. Can a fetus use a fingernail to rip a hole in the placenta, thereby instigating the breaking of the waters, the beginning of contractions; in a word, his own birth? Who cares? It’s funny.

Fellatio: “What she swallows will find its way to me as nutrient, and make me just a little like him.”

Uncle Claude’s snoring, as experienced from within: “On the exhalation, a long, constipated groan, its approaching terminus frilled with electric sibilants. Then an extended pause which, if you loved him, might alarm you. Has he breathed his last? If you don’t, there’s hope he has. But finally, a shorter, greedy intake, scarred with the rattle of wind-dried mucus and, at the breezy summit, the soft palate’s triumphant purr.”

I could go on and on with examples, but this book review is already far too long. Let’s end where we began, by quoting from Vladimir Nabokov: “All writers that are worth anything are humorists. I’m not P.G. Wodehouse. I’m not a funny man, but give me an example of a great writer who is not a humorist.”

I do not agree totally with that blanket statement. I can think of great writers who are not that much involved with humor. One of the greatest, Lev Tolstoy, is one of them. Certainly his writings have their share of comic incidences, but he’s not, primarily, a humorist. But then, if you like riding the romping and cavorting pony of aesthetic pleasure, what better than a comic novel? Gogol’s Dead Souls. Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It. Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that comic novels are to be disparaged as something inferior to the great serious novel. Great comic writing is always interlarded with the utterly serious, even profound.

One more speck of wisdom from Nabokov. He remarks somewhere that there are two supremely pleasurable things in life: collecting butterflies and writing creative fiction. Don’t know if Ian McEwan goes in for lepidopterology, but he sure can write literary fiction, and he surely is having a lot of fun doing it.

U.R. Bowie, author of Cogitations on the White Whale: A Palaver Novel in One Sentence (forthcoming)



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