Saturday, September 24, 2016

Nutshell: a ridiculous plot that really works

Imagine Elsinore as a bouncy castle and Hamlet tumbling and squirming against its deep red squishy walls--but then it's not Hamlet but some kind of travesty, good only for a few cheap laughs. 

Imagine Hamlet as a baby--but at that stage he has no father's murder to avenge, no self-awareness or ability to act independently.

Imagine Hamlet as an unborn child in his mother's womb, unwittingly overhearing his mother and uncle plot to murder his unsuspecting father--but what baby possesses the language and knowledge of the world to understand murder or exact revenge?

It's a ridiculous conceit, implausible except as farce. What kind of fool would try to turn such a bizarre plot into serious fiction?

Ian McEwen is that kind of fool, and the remarkable thing is this: it works. Nutshell is a gleaming little gem of a novel, fast-paced and suspenseful and sparkling with insight about flawed humanity.

The novel demands an instant suspension of disbelief but offers rewards in clever and elegant writing, McEwen's most poetic prose. Our narrator, the unborn and unnamed child, insists that he is not a blank slate but "a slippery, porous slate no schoolroom or cottage roof could find use for, a slate that writes upon itself as it grows by the day and becomes less blank. I count myself an innocent, but it seems I'm party to a plot."

The plot is hatched by Trudy and Claude, just one of many echoes of Hamlet, the play never mentioned but frequently evoked, starting with the epigraph that provides the novel's title: "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."

Our narrator recalls his first moment of awareness within the womb, the first fleeting idea that solidified within his developing brain: "[M]y idea was To be. or if not that, its grammatical variant, is. This was my aboriginal notion and here's the crux--is. Just that." But will he ever have a chance to be, an unwanted child destined to be sacrificed as part of the impending plot?

And what a plot! If an unborn child is the only witness to murder, how can he bring justice on the perpetrators? He has only contempt for clueless Claude, "Whose repeated remarks are a witless, thrustless dribble, whose impoverished sentences die like motherless chicks, cheaply fading....As a man he's a piece of work, a self-constructed device, a tool for hard deception." But his mother, too, has blood on her hands, causing our narrator to struggle to balance his hatred for her acts with his love for her person. "I wear my mother like a tight-fitting cap," he says, but he cannot remove that cap without removing his only source of comfort and nourishment.

It's a clever fetus that knows its own father and no fetus is cleverer than McEwen's narrator, but despite his cleverness, putting his plan into action poses challenges. "Between the conception of a deed and its acting out lies a tangle of hideous contingencies," he says, and those contingencies keep the suspense at a maximum until the end.

And what an end. Nutshell is a tiny book, readable in an afternoon, with a closing passage so satisfying I wanted to start over and read it again right away just so I could land on that moment one more time. Despite its macabre machinations, it's a joyful little book, abounding with energy and insight. Just don't try to explain the plot to anyone. Hamlet as an unborn child? Ridiculous.


Anonymous said...

Great review!

Bardiac said...

Sounds intriguing!