Compulsively Readable Novels
Ian McEwan has gone ahead and bounded him. The unnamed protagonist of his latest novel, Nutshell, narrates from the womb. The core elements otherwise echo Shakespeare's: The hero's mother, Trudy, is having an affair with his father's loathsome brother, Claude, and he hears the pair plotting to poison his father. And what purer framing of that elemental question, "to be or not to be," than the mind of a human yet unborn? The not-to-be he attempts via umbilical strangulation—"three turns around my neck of the mortal coil." He fails (for "to kill the brain is to kill the will to kill the brain"), then resolves to be: to "get born and act!" And I will give no more away.
Whence a fetus who can form sophisticated thoughts and express them in Shakespeare-esque elegance and cadence? That, truly, is the question. The answer: "I listen, I learn." Our narrator imbibes the podcasts his mother plays to put herself to sleep. Talk radio, self-improvement audiobooks, the BBC—he hears it all "above the launderette din of stomach and bowels." Improbably, McEwan pulls it off. I bought the premise and never looked back. The tormented, windily erudite fetus of Nutshell is a character as completely and convincingly rendered as Hamlet himself.
McEwan spins wicked gold from the implausible circumstances he's conjured. "Not everyone knows what it is to have your father's rival's penis inches from your nose." Fellatio (now striking my ear like the name of a Shakespearean character) provokes a similar dread: that "what she swallows will find its way to me as nutrient, and make me just a little like him."
On the plus side of umbilical intake, Trudy knows her wines. And so, therefore, does Junior. "No one seems to want to read aloud the label so I'm forced to make a guess, and hazard an Échezeaux Grand Cru." An embryonic oenophile! One of the many preposterous enchantments that will, I predict, make this the most talked-about novel of the season.