With “Nutshell,” Ian McEwan has performed an incongruous magic trick, mashing up the premises of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Amy Heckerling’s 1989 movie, “Look Who’s Talking,” to create a smart, funny and utterly captivating novel.
It’s a tale told by a talking fetus who’s a kind of Hamlet in utero — a baby-to-be (or not-to-be, as the case may be), who bears witness to an affair between his mother, Trudy, and his uncle Claude. This adulterous pair are plotting to kill the baby’s father, John. Can the narrator prevent this murder — or later exact some sort of revenge? What will happen to the narrator should his father be abruptly dispatched to heaven, and his mother found out and sent to jail? And what do these depressing developments portend about the world into which he is soon to be born?
Mr. McEwan’s narrator is one well-spoken, highbrow baby (a kind of less diabolical Stewie from “Family Guy”), who possesses all the verbal gifts of his creator (Mr. McEwan, not Trudy or John) and the sophistication of a 21st-century member of London’s chattering class — thanks to eavesdropping, from the womb, on the podcasts and “self-improving audiobooks” his mother is fond of. He is thrilled by Joyce’s “Ulysses,” prefers Keats to most modern poets (“Too much about the self, too glassily cool with regard to others”) and worries a lot about things like climate change and nuclear proliferation. Thanks to Trudy’s love of fine vintages, he’s also something of a wine connoisseur with a taste for Sancerre.
Like his 1998 novel, “Amsterdam,” “Nutshell” is a small tour de force that showcases all of Mr. McEwan’s narrative gifts of precision, authority and control, plus a new, Tom Stoppard-like delight in the sly gymnastics that words can be perform. The restrictions created by the narrator’s situation — stuck inside a maternal nutshell — seem to have stimulated a surge of inventiveness on Mr. McEwan’s part, as he mischievously concocts a monologue for his “almost child” that plays on “Hamlet,” even as it explores some of his own favorite themes (the corruption of innocence, the vulnerability of children and the sudden skid of ordinary life into horror), familiar to readers from such earlier works as “The Child in Time,” “The Children Act” and his 2002 masterwork, “Atonement.”
The narrator understands – or thinks he understands — the three legs of the adulterous triangle around him in very clear terms. John is a not-very-successful poet and small-time publisher — kindly, impoverished and eager to please, persuaded by his pregnant wife to move out of the ancestral manse because she needs a little “space.” Trudy is a manipulative green-eyed beauty who has fallen out of love with John and fallen in lust with his “priapic, satanic” younger brother, Claude — a dimwitted real estate developer and first-class dolt who “knows only clothes and cars.”
As time passes, however, the narrator begins to wonder if things might not be a little more complicated than he first surmised. Has his father been having an affair with Elodie, a pretty young thing who writes poems about owls? And why does his dad seem to have so little regard for him, his soon-to-be-born son? For that matter, what does Trudy plan to do with him once he is born; will he simply be given away or put in foster care?
“Nutshell” cleverly takes its title from a line in “Hamlet”: “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.” And the novel is brightly studded with allusions not just to “Hamlet” but also to “Macbeth,” “Lolita,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” Montaigne’s essays, Dante, Nietzsche and Kafka. Mr. McEwan’s little homunculus is, by turns, earnest, mocking, sarcastic, searching and irreverent, especially when his mother has had several glasses of wine and he’s reeling from a contact high. He worries about being contaminated by Claude’s sperm when his uncle is having sex with Trudy. And he tries giving his mother a strong kick when he wants to remind her of his existence.
When he isn’t trying to piece together Trudy and Claude’s nefarious plans, the narrator spends a lot of time musing about the state of the world outside “the bouncy castle” that is his temporary home. How can commentators declare that it’s “dusk in the second Age of Reason,” he wonders, when there are “commonplace miracles that would make a manual laborer the envy of Caesar Augustus: pain-free dentistry, electric light, instant contact with people we love, with the best music the world has known, with the cuisine of a dozen cultures”?
On the other hand, “Europa’s secular dreams of union” are threatening to dissolve “before the old hatreds, small-scale nationalism, financial disaster, discord.” While poverty and war are “driving millions from their homes, an ancient epic in new form, vast movements of people, like engorged rivers in spring, Danubes, Rhines and Rhones of angry or desolate or hopeful people, crammed at borders against the razor-wire gates, drowning in thousands to share in the fortunes of the West.”
It’s preposterous, of course, that a fetus should be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his sleight of hand. At the same time, his unborn Hamlet’s soliloquy leaves us with a snapshot of part of London that’s as resonant as the portrait of the post-9/11 world he created in his “Mrs. Dalloway”-inspired novel “Saturday,” a snapshot of how a slice of the privileged West lives — and worries — today.