Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: Nutshell (a novel)

By Moristotle

With a whoop and a slap of my thigh, I finished Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell, its final act an ingenious, but inevitable turn of plot. What a read! I highly recommend Nutshell, for all those who like their fiction with a flair for invention – in language as well as in setting and narrative voice – and for informed comment on culture, politics, psychology…and, in this case, forensic investigation. For Nutshell involves a murder.

As for narrative voice, how about a foetal narrator? You’re in your mother’s womb. She’s well into her third trimester. You barely have room to move. You’ve developed a taste for the fine wines she imbibes, you share her highs. You’re also functionally intelligent, articulate, and observant. You figure out in short order that the man your mother’s with is….But I won’t spoil it for you – except that I really do have to tell you also that the situation was borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and your mother’s name is Trudy, and the aforementioned man is named Claude….
    And I’m confident that if you’ve consulted your memory of the play and now figured out who the man is (in relation to your father, I mean), far from having spoiled anything for you, I’m heightened your excitement and you’re already trying to decide how you’ll get a copy of the book: borrow, buy, or purloin.
    You might be wondering, too, how an unborn child can be a satisfactory narrator, unable as he is to act on the other characters in the story he is recounting. Mr. McEwan has considered this too, and what he has in store for you is marvelous (if inevitable).

I read the book by listening, augmented by reading some of the pages from a library book (borrowed, not purloined).
    The listening was more entertaining than listening to a book usually is, because my reader sounded a lot like Jeremy Irons. (Imagine yourself – as unborn babe – sounding like Jeremy Irons!) One of my favorite passages of conversation (which you’ve overheard, and can now imagine in the voice of Mr. Irons):

“We should run through it one last time.”
    But they don’t. Stupefied, they contemplate Chief Inspector Allison’s approach. By now, within the hour could mean within the minute. Knowing everything, almost everything, I’m party to the crime, safe, obviously, from questioning, but fearful. And curious, impatient to witness the inspector’s skills. An open mind could peel these two apart in minutes. Trudy betrayed by nerves, Claude by stupidity.
    I’m trying to place them, the morning coffee cups from my father’s visit. Transferred, I think, to wait unwashed by the kitchen sink. DNA on one cup will prove my mother and uncle to be telling the truth. The Danish debris must be close by.
    “Quickly,” says Claude at last. “Let’s do this. Where did the row start?”
    “In the kitchen.”
    “No. On the doorstep. What was it about?”
    “No. Throwing you out. How long was he depressed?”
    “Months. How much did I lend him?”
    “A thousand.”
    “Five. Christ. Trudy.”
    “I’m pregnant. It makes you dim.”
    “You said it yourself yesterday. Everything as it was, plus the depression, minus the smoothies, plus the row.”
    “Plus the gloves. Minus he was moving back in.”
    “God yes. Again. What was he depressed about?”
    “Us. Debts. Work. Baby.”
    They go round a second time. By the third, it sounds better. What sickening complicity that I should with them success.
    “So say it then.”
    “As it happened. Minus the smoothies, plus the row and gloves, minus the depression, plus he was moving back in.”
    “No. Fuck! Trudy. As was. Plus the depression, minus the smoothies, plus the row, plus the gloves, minus he was moving back in.”
    The doorbell rings and they freeze. [pp. 167-68]
It could be a Tom Stoppard play, couldn’t it? (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead would be the appropriate one to think of.)

As usual for Ian McEwan, contemporary world events inform the narrative (you, awaiting birth, have overheard the podcasts your mother listens to). You are concerned about your future:
I want to read to the end of My History of the Twenty-First Centure. 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.
    It might end before that date and so it’s a thriller of sorts, violent, sensational, highly commercial. A compendium of dreams with elements of horror. But it’s bound to be a love story too, and a heroic tale of brilliant invention. For a taste, look at the prequel, the hundred years before. A grim read, at least until halfway, but compelling. A few redeeming chapters on, say, Einstein and Stravinsky. In the new book, one of many unresolved plot lines is this: will its 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. To raise the chances of a score, add more teams: the non-state players will arrive.
    How determined are our heroes to overheat their hearth? A cosy 1.6 degrees, the projection or hope of a skeptical few, will open up the tundra to mountains of wheat, Baltic beachside tavernas, lurid butterflies in the Northwest Territories. At the darker end of pessimism, a wind-torn four degrees allows for flood-and-drought calamity and all of turmoil’s dark political weather. More narrative tension in subplots of local interest: 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 dreams of union may dissolve before the old hatreds, small-scale nationalism, financial disaster, discord. Or she might hold her course. I need to know….[pp. 128-29]
If that doesn’t whet your appetite but rather takes it entirely away, well, at least you’ve learned to avoid Nutshell and maybe avoid Ian McEwan altogether. His work won’t appeal to all readers, as it probably wouldn’t to the Jane Austen character Sir Edward Denham (in her unfinished, untitled novel now generally known as Sanditon). To quote Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review, “Reading Jane Austen’s Final, Unfinished Novel,”
[Denham] reads a lot, which sounds promising, but he reads in order to be emotionally engulfed, and to arm himself for the engulfing of others…What Sir Edward pores over is romantic verse – especially that of Robert Burns, of whom he remarks, “His soul was the altar in which lovely woman sat enshrined” – plus those novels which “exhibit the progress of strong passion from the first germ of incipient susceptibility to the utmost energies of reason half-dethroned.”
If you are not Sir Edward, please come back to comment on this review after you have read Nutshell.
    Or if you are Sir Edward, but choose to read Nutshell anyway, we would be especially interested in your reaction. For, as a Guardian interview said years ago, “[McEwan] thought of [his novel] Atonement (the first part of it) variously as ‘my Jane Austen novel, my country house novel, my one-hot-day novel’. He knew it was a book he had been waiting years to write.”

Copyright © 2017 by Moristotle

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