For the first third or so of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Nutshell, I seriously entertained the possibility that he had written this book purely to aggravate his critics. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say his haters, a small group that occupies the Venn-diagram overlap between "people who care about fiction" and "people who use ‘neoliberal’ un-ironically." We can take the novelist John Banville as representative. Of McEwan’s well-received Saturday, published in 2005, Banville penned a blistering contrarian attack, the nut of which was this:
The politics of the book is banal, of the sort that is to be heard at any middle-class Saturday-night dinner party, before the talk moves on to property prices and recipes for fish stew… [It] has the feel of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong; if Tony Blair—who makes a fleeting personal appearance in the book, oozing insincerity—were to appoint a committee to produce a "novel for our time," the result would surely be something like this.
Tony Blair, banal, property prices—oof. McEwan is an extraordinarily talented writer, Banville conceded. It would be silly to argue otherwise. But McEwan’s condescension to the middlebrows, telling them a story in which good guys triumph and baddies get theirs, not to say his heterodox sympathy for arguments in favor of invading Iraq, led him to produce a "self-satisfied" and "ridiculous" book.
Recent Stories in Culture
So no surprise that there was rueful mirth among the haters when news broke that Nutshell was the tale of a murder plot told from the point of view of a fetus. And it is not just McEwan’s employment of the first-person fetus, and the consequent implication of an unborn child’s humanity. There is also said fetus’s rather extensive thoughts about the comparative merits of pinot noir from Burgundy and sauvignon blanc from Sancerre, both of which his mother, Trudy, somewhat irresponsibly drinks in quantity.
Trudy also listens a lot to the BBC, so her child has, at nine months, developed rather predictably centrist politics, balancing worries about climate change with fear of Islamic terrorism and the proliferation of WMDs. Another amniotic soliloquy involves his plans for university, which he hopes to enjoy as a second womb by making the most of identity politics: "If my college does not bless me, validate me and give me what I clearly need, I’ll press my face into the vice chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation." Add to all this that the novel’s murder plot revolves around the price of an expensive house (is there any other kind?) in St. John’s Wood, and you have something of a hater’s perfect storm, not to say a novel with a strong flavor of Saturday to it.
The murder our floating protagonist can hear being planned rather disconcertingly targets his father John, a poet who has been replaced in his mother’s affections by John’s brother, Claude. If the plot, not to say the names, aren’t sufficient to clue in readers, McEwan helpfully provides the lines from Hamlet as an epigraph: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." In taking a story from the canon and setting it among contemporary London’s upper middle class, McEwan is taking a cue from his last novel, The Children Act, which performed the same trick with the third chapter of Genesis.
I don’t think I’m revealing too much by observing that even a passing knowledge of the plot of Hamlet suggests our lead players are in for a bumpy ride. But McEwan’s story is not a tragedy in the strict sense of the genre. Nutshell defies easy classification, but there is something here of television mystery series like Inspector Morse, or perhaps of the kind of show where the viewer knows whodunit (or who’s planning to do it) but is powerless to intervene—if such shows could be interwoven with musing digressions from the fetal point of view.
If you haven’t yet enjoyed an Ian McEwan novel for yourself, you’ll just have to take my word that, strange as all this sounds, it is gripping stuff. (Indeed, the successful weaving of suspense was what allayed my initial concern that this was McEwan’s novella-length screw you to his detractors—or maybe I’m assuming mutual exclusivity where I shouldn’t.) McEwan’s powers are on full, even obnoxious display. His ear for the infinitely colored signals in English conversation, its ironic raids and retreats, its sometimes-fatal gambits, is second only to Anthony Powell’s—and maybe not even that anymore. The account of human inner space is, as always with McEwan, convincing. The very pregnant, very beautiful, very dangerous Trudy is exceptionally well drawn, and her relationship with the painfully banal but sexually dominating Claude (a soulless Rex Mottram type whose depiction Evelyn Waugh would instantly recognize and admire) provides McEwan with ample opportunity to explore the ways in which women and men are treacherous to one another.
Above all, there is McEwan’s skill as a pure storyteller, closely tied to his mastery of the tool of pace—the narrator’s musings once or twice intrude at moments of peak tension, a trick that has been around since Homer but has lost none of its effect. For all of its novelty and strangeness, this book is also deeply conventional, a paradox illuminated by a lesson the narrator’s father enjoys sharing with his poetry students: "Form isn’t a cage. It’s an old friend you can only pretend to leave."
Perhaps this is a deeper reason McEwan is so aggravating to some. His work shows that a writer can owe at least as much to the legacy of storytelling before modernism and the avant-garde as he does to anything produced in the last century, and be not only popular, but creative.