The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 28.025 Sunday, 15 January 2017
Date: January 14, 2017 at 2:03:06 PM EST
Subject: FROM TLS - Ian McEwan’s NUTSHELL
September 7 2016
208pp. Vintage. £16.99.
978 1 911214 33 0
Ian McEwan’s high-wire act
There is no other place, observed Freud, about which we can say with such certainty that we have “been there before”, so it is surprising how rarely novels return us to the womb. And it is unsurprising, once we are back in there, how familiar a place this seems – at least in the hands of Ian McEwan, a novelist well known for exploring his characters from the inside.
The narrator of Nutshell, unnamed because unborn, is still in his starter home, a “bouncy castle” that is fast closing in on him. Here, woozy on Sancerre (his mother Trudy’s favourite tipple), with one ear pressed hard to the wall, he surveys the scene that awaits him. From the radio, he grasps that there is something rotten in the world; from a podcast of Ulysses he learns what writing can do: he holds on for dear life during Trudy’s shuddering orgasms (which he compares to the wall of death at a fairground), and is party to the pillow talk between his mother and her lover Claude, who are plotting to murder Claude’s brother – that is, Trudy’s husband and our narrator’s father. McEwan’s centre of consciousness is a wise child – philosophical, even. And, denied sight or agency, all this child has to work with are words, words, words.
Trudy, our foetus gathers, needs “space” to think through her marriage (“Space! She should come in here, where I can barely crook a finger”). She therefore throws John out of their home in London’s Hamilton Terrace, installing Claude in his place. Awaiting his own eviction, Trudy’s tenant feels for his father. John is a poet, a noble, handsome Hyperion whose publishing firm has fallen on hard times; Claude is a satyr with a seemingly permanent erection, who speaks only in clichés. “Not everyone knows”, the foetus reflects as Claude lurches into gear, “what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.”
[ . . . ]