Ian McEwan, Nutshell (#bookreview)

Ian McEwan, NutshellLike Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton, which I reviewed recently, Ian McEwan’s Nutshell has a narrator who won’t appeal to those who don’t like devices like skeletons in cupboards or babies in wombs. However, repeating what I said in my review of Bird’s book, it all depends on the writer’s skill, and McEwan, like Bird, is a skilful writer. Consequently, when the novel opened 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”, I relegated my disbelief to the pillion and set off for the ride.

As you’ll have guessed from that opening quote (if you didn’t already know), our narrator is a foetus. In my experience, McEwan writes strong, attention-grabbing first chapters, and Nutshell delivers here too. Our foetus-narrator, close to being born, is forced to be party to, or at least cognisant of, a plot concocted by his mother, Trudy, and uncle, Claude, to kill his father. Ring any bells? Yes, he (and it is a “he”) is a Hamlet in the wings. This is a clever modern riff on Hamlet, exploring many of the same issues, such as revenge, action versus inaction, corruption. It’s also a commentary on what we could grandly call the modern condition – on our world which is “too complicated and dangerous for our quarrelsome natures to manage”.

SORT OF SPOILER (so miss this paragraph if you wish)

If you know your Hamlet what I say next won’t be a spoiler, and if you don’t know your Hamlet, the part I’m giving away happens slap-bang in the middle of the book, hence is not, I’d suggest, a spoiler? So, with that fair warning, here goes. Nutshell is a tight, murder-mystery. For the first half of the book, the question is “will they do it?”, while in the second half, it’s “will they get away with it?” We are privy to most of the plotting and planning because our foetus goes, of course, wherever his mother does. However, this is as much an ideas-driven book as a plot-driven one so, I’m going to move onto some of the ideas the novel teases out.

McEwan is clear about what he sees as the “rotten state” (one of the many allusions in the novel to Hamlet) the world is in. There are references to world powers out of control. Europe  is “in existential crisis, fractious and weak”, while China, “too big for friends or counsel” is “cynically probing its neighbours’ shores”. “Muslim-majority countries” are “plagued by religious puritanism” and “foe-of-convenience” America, now “barely the hope of the world” is “guilty of torture”. There’s also the nuclear threat, climate change “driving millions from their homes”, the “urinous tsunami of the burgeoning old”, and our increasing loss of liberty in the service of security. For our foetus, though,

Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions. We excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels, movies. And now in commentaries. Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived.

It’s an attitude I like – and is what makes Nutshell not the bleak book it could be.

How does McEwan get away with all this?

The book, though, is not without its awkwardness. Sometimes the “rants” are a little too much, providing a virtual grab-bag of the world’s ills, from the loss of the Enlightenment’s rationality to the threat of North Korea. And sometimes our foetus-narrator is a little too knowing. Most of the time, McEwan makes clear why his narrator knows what he knows, including the limits to his knowledge, but sometimes our imaginations are stretched just a little too far. This is a very-knowing, very smart, highly articulate foetus, one who is not above giving his mother a kick:

In the middle of a long, quiet night I might give my mother a sharp kick. She’ll wake, become insomniac, reach for the radio. Cruel sport, I know, but we are better informed by the morning.

It is his “one morsel of agency” (and he uses it, giving, perhaps, Hamlet a lesson!) It is through these radio talks that our foetus learns most of what he knows about the world. Overall, McEwan maintained the conceit well, and I enjoyed the foetus-narrator’s view on the world he expects soon to join. Fortunately, my disbelief stayed on the pillion!

Besides this, the book is fun to read. There are allusions galore – not only to Hamlet but to a wide range of literary works. I would have missed many but I enjoyed spotting others, such as Jane Austen’s “two inches of ivory”, Julian Barnes’ “sense of an ending” and of course Hamlet’s “rotten state” and “a piece of work”. There is probably a bit of McEwan showing off here – flexing his literary credentials – but spotting allusions gave me little fillips of pleasure! There are also many funny scenes, including several involving descriptions of the lovemaking of the adulterous schemers:

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.

The question of course has to be asked: why choose such a narrator? I’m sure there’s more than one answer to this question. I have no idea what McEwan has said so I could be way off here, but early on our narrator describes himself as “an innocent”, “a free spirit”, a “blank slate”, albeit becoming less blank by the day. Is he the perfect naive (but certainly not unreliable) narrator, able to comment, “unburdened by allegiances and obligations” on the murky world, or is McEwan suggesting there’s no such thing as innocence? Or, is his function to answer that question of whether we should bring children into the world. In the end, I think that McEwan’s message – or one of them anyhow – is that the world is worth hanging around for. It is “Beautiful. Loving. Murderous”, like Trudy, and our foetus wants to live it, hoping he will find meaning. An engaging read.

Ian McEwan
London: Vintage, 2016
ISBN: 9781473547131 (ePub)

(A reading group read)

Ian McEwan, Solar

Ian McEwan Solar bookcover

Bookcover (Used by permission of the Random House Group Ltd)

I don’t know whether I believe your story, but I’ve enjoyed it.

So says McEwan’s latest creation, Michael Beard, to a character he has “done wrong”. This more or less sums up my feelings about Solar, the novel in which this statement appears. I am a McEwan fan and have greatly liked most of the 5 or 6 of his books that I’ve read but, while I found this one readable, I’m not convinced that it completely comes together into a coherent whole. This may have something to do with the fact that McEwan has tried for something lighter here and hasn’t quite pulled it off.

Do I need to describe the plot? It’s been reviewed so much by now that I presume most readers here already know it. However, to be on the safe side, here goes. It’s all about Nobel Laureate physicist, Michael Beard, who at the start of the book is 53 years old, 15lbs overweight and at the end of his 5th marriage (due to his incurable, it seems, womanising). On top of this he is struggling to keep his career alive: he is surviving, mostly on speaking engagements, while he waits, hopes, for a new inspiration. This is the set up. And, as is typical of McEwan, a little way into the book an event occurs that will be life-changing. In Beard’s case it will kickstart his career. How that occurs – and its eventual fallout – forms the rest of the book.

The novel is divided into three parts, labelled simply 2000, 2005 and 2009. If Beard was 15lbs overweight in 2000, in 2005 he is 35lbs overweight and by 2009 that has increased to 65lbs. This might tell you something about him: he is out of control in every aspect of his life – physically, emotionally, intellectually and morally. He is not, as you might gather from this, a likable man, but it is mainly through his eyes – told third person – that we experience the novel.

As the title suggests, the book’s subject matter is solar energy and climate change. And some of the best parts are those in which McEwan satirises the politics of climate change. In an amusing sequence, Beard is invited to the arctic along with a number of artists (making him the proverbial sore thumb) to experience climate change first hand. While he is there he observes the increasing chaos in the “bootroom” where the outdoor clothing is kept. From day one, the “bootroom” doesn’t work as people take items from pegs that are not their own resulting by the end of the week in no-one wearing a complete outfit that fits them. This works pretty well as a metaphor for the chaos and disorganisation in the climate change community. Add to this scenes like the idealistic climate-changers scooting about the ice in their gas-guzzling skidoos and you get a rather funny, and pointed, episode in the book.

The tone of the book is, in fact, comic-satiric which is a bit of a departure for McEwan who has tended to write books that are more dramatic, many with a “thriller” component. Here, though, there are even moments of slap-stick, such as when Beard early in the book pretends that he has a woman in the house in an attempt to make his wife jealous – all to no effect, but in terms of the novel’s plot it results in a deeply ironic statement:

Clearly he had been in no state to take decisions or to devise schemes and from now on he must take into account his unreliable mental state and act conservatively, passively, honestly, and break no rules, do nothing extreme.

Not long after this episode he does the complete opposite. Some of the members of my reading group found the book very funny but for me it fell a little flat. I saw the satire and thought it was clever at times, but it was sometimes more pathetic than highly comic, and at other times a little heavy-handed. Here, for example, is Beard on the bootroom:

How were they to save the earth – assuming it needed saving, which he doubted – when it was so much larger than the bootroom?

Now, most readers would already have got the point. I’m not sure that we needed to have it hammered home like this.

The focus of the book, as you will have gathered by now, is Beard and we spend a lot of time in his head. This is not a problem in itself, except that he never seems to change. He’s a gluttonous, arrogant, self-centred womaniser at the beginning and is the same at the end. He is also morally bankrupt – something you will discover soon enough if you read the book. Does a character have to change for a book to work? Not necessarily – think Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Perfume – but we do have to stay interested in the character and Beard, for me, became a little boring. There was too much of the same – too much womanising, too much alcohol and fatty, fast food, too much self-aggrandisement – that I started to think “enough already”.

The key question to ask, then, is why has McEwan chosen such a character? The answer seems to be that McEwan wanted to express his fear – cynicism even – about 21st century humankind’s ability to enforce change. Early in the novel is this:

Beard was not wholly sceptical about climate change. It was one of a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that comprised the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it and expected governments to meet and take action … but he himself had other things to think about …

Himself, basically. Is McEwan saying Beard is us, is Everyman? If so, I can’t help thinking he’s got a point, but I’m not sure he’s written the book – like, say, Animal farm – that sustains the trope well enough to last the distance.

Oh dear, I fear now that I have been more critical than I meant to, because I did find the book readable. I did want to know what happened. I liked a lot of the language. And I did enjoy many of the observations McEwan makes throughout the book – about reason and logic versus idealism, about feminism, and of course about politics. Take for example the following, which is very apposite given that we downunder are in the middle of a Federal election campaign:

He was aggressively apolitical – to the fingertips, he liked to say. He disliked the overheated non-arguments, the efforts each side made to misunderstand and misrepresent the other, the amnesia that spooled behind each ‘issue’ as it arose.

I can relate to that …

Finally, there is a sly bit of self-deprecation running through the book about stories, imagination and the arts. I had to laugh at Beard’s comment that:

People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to have equal value.

I’ll leave you to decide what you think of McEwan’s version here.

Ian McEwan
London: Jonathan Cape, 2010
ISBN: 9780224090506