Reading “Nutshell” by Ian McEwan

I recently watched the film Genius and loved it for its depiction of the last great editor. Near the end Maxwell Perkins asks if editors improve books or just make them different. As an author and editor, and somewhat sharpened by this film, I bought the novella Nutshell and read it through my two specific lenses, partly with a view to answering that sticky Perkinsian question for myelf.

For many reasons I’m probably McEwan’s perfect critic; I’m uniquely aligned to write about this book since I appear to be uncannily like one of the characters–the poet-teacher-publisher-radio host, who is the under-threat father of the talking fetus narrating the story; and, we-two Ians both–have no inhibitions about delving into the verisimilitude of myriad bodily functions, the realistic and hopefully humorous descriptions of which make prudish readers cringe; Nutshell is designed as an intellectual page-turner, as is my just released novel House of Large Sizes. You may be thinking how dare this bozo mention the two novels in the same sentence. Well, I do, and here’s why:

McEwan is by no means the first to write from a pre-natal point of view. I don’t suppose anyone can begin any earlier in the birth process as John Bath did with his short story “Night Sea Journey,” but also, Gunter Grass, in The Tin Drum, has a go with his midget narrator remembering life in the womb. And to cap this I had some time ago started work on a narrative, a chapter of a larger work to be precise, which narrates from my mother’s womb. Needless to say when Nutshell came out I was quite miffed, but it’s my own fault for procrastinating. I’ll write it anyway, and endure the ridicule. 

I should also say that McEwan is probably my favourite author writing in English. The reason for my choice to write with great detail about sex is because he went before me with his brilliant early work. He has written perfect novels. But I don’t like it when my heroes write rubbish, even if the rubbish is elegant, erudite and as scaldingly entertaining as it is in Nutshell. And I don’t like it when critics let down their guard and piss themselves praising a novel without mentioning its glaring faults. 

Look, I liked the book and it entertained me. I kept turning the pages to find out what would happen to the character who bore a bizarre resemblance to myself. But when committing to read a novel I expect, along with the willing suspension of disbelief, some consistency, some internal logic. The intelligent talking fetus keeps narrating that he’s picked up everything from listening to the radio through the womb wall, since his mother’s an avid listener. Which she actually isn’t. Hilariously, the little bugger uses French and German phrases that few British readers, let alone American ones, would know. I know it’s supposed to be funny, yes, but the editor in me wanted to eradicate such nonsense and let the impossibility of the donee stand alone. McEwan’s trying create verisimilitude within the context of a fabulation. What the hell for? All it did was piss me off.  

As I read I longed for another of my favourites, now beastly dead, who is equally as capable of falling through the expositional floor—Saramaga–to be writing this. He would not bother to try and set up some half-cocked justification of a genius baby in the womb to be so articulate; he would simply do it and let the reader suspend disbelief and enjoy the obviousness of a ridiculous tongue-in-cheek premise. The premise comes across as silly, and doesn’t have to; he tries to justify like an amateur. The fetus has learned everything he knows from listening to the radio through the womb wall, and the mother’s erudite taste in listening has afforded him access to French, German and Latin phraseology, as well as given him a familiarity with phenomenological and structuralist referencing. Much as I loved that he mentions (page 73 of the American edition) one of my heroes, Rolande Barthes, I’m afraid that blew me out of the fictional dream, despite its humorous intent. 

The editor and the author combine in me to imagine a solution to this brilliant failure: Let the voice simply declare that it sees through its mother’s eyes. Why not? And her intelligence, gradually separating from the babe’s as it finds its own, what fun it would be to snap that intelligence into oblivion during the separation at birth. There’s an insane theory here somewhere. But, here I go, being an editor ‘improving’ the text; have I made it better or simply changed it? 

Imagine my version, based on the slightly less absurd notion that the great incunabula of life impression begins in the dark ages of the womb.

This is copyrighted, so no plagiarizing!

I will not attempt this in fiction, but in what in we call “creative non-fiction,” which in this case might be called fictoir.

FIRST DRAFT: He knew he was a he because he had been victorious in the invasion of the great She, which had been hard-wired into his every wriggle; he was the survivor, the one oiled in the wolf-bane of testosterone! And as he grew he understood with her that her eyes were his eyes; his mind, at least at first, her mind, but the masculine part of it, and oh how well that was hidden. If there are demons it is these little men now, us, him; how we long to beat our tiny fist on the soft door, and invade her world, and straighten out all that she hates. He knows she will call him Ian, a name she loves, and he knows he will be her prince because she wants a blue-eyed boy like the father and the old father and the one before that. She tells no one that she’s a Nazi sympathizer. She tells no one anything of the rage inside her against the stiff-necked bastards who directed her into this mess. Ian will help her; the little prince will sweep all before him. Just watch.

 And the intercourse! That stubby cyclops thrusting through the soft wall at the back of Ian’s neck. That swine she loves, this Henry Leask–I’ll get revenge on you, Mr Father! You will pay!

And when little Ian leaves Mother he preserves her insecurities in him, as well as her genetics, to roll around with the robust ones of the father: that weird balance of nature–grow from her but look like him—so, like that ogre Kronus, he won’t eat you. Like her, you struggle with rejection; therefore, you become a writer. And, as further punishment for being her son, you become an editor as well. Oy vey!

Once Ian had accumulated by a certain age enough gumption to examine his existence, he hitherto maintained an impression that he had known a lot about the world coming into it. (Natural enough to think that of course, but I’m hoping against hope that the same process will work the other way, that is after I’m dead and buried. I have no faith, but since I’ve been wrong so much in my life I won’t be surprised to be met with a scowling Jesus, who says, “Oh, it’s you. That was a bloody waste of time, wasn’t it? Get the hell in before I change my mind!”).

He remembers this: She watches with Mother on a small television before embarking a ship to Southampton. She’s very pleased to leave the stink of Bombay, but not pleased to go back to Richmond where all her abandoned children lurk in her dreams like zombies. When she sleeps Ian dreams with her, and learns to dream from her. As he grows, his dreams are routed in the pattern of hers. Therefore she lingers in him now, still alive. That massive engine of Hell rumbling far off in the distance like a heartbeat.

Then comes the ironic climax of our pre-natal text–the horror of being born. It is death, oblivion and separation from the mind of the mother. You are nothing again, a sperm adrift in the cold oxygen of the world, relearning everything, mindless without her. And the foul smelling father grasps you and carries you to the window to see the sky. Oh, the horror, the horror, the horror. 

McEwan and I, and maybe lots of other writers, are a little worried about sensitivity and ‘trigger warnings’: I put a tongue-in-cheek one on the copyright page of my novel House of Large Sizes, and he writes a whole paragraph, from the point of view of a fetus, on page 145. So be warned.

Feel free to review HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES using the same sense of fun to which I’ve subjected poor Mr. McEwan: 


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