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How does Ian McEwan pull off Hamlet told by a fetus in 'Nutshell'?

How does Ian McEwan pull off Hamlet told by a fetus in 'Nutshell'?
Ian McEwan ('Atonement') takes an unusual turn with 'Nutshell.' (Urszula Soltys)

Thesis: The idea behind Ian McEwan's new novel, "Nutshell"— an imagining of the events leading up to "Hamlet" (Gertrude and Claudius plotting to and then going ahead with killing King Hamlet) set in modern London, with the three principal parts played by John and Trudy and Claude (poet, trophy wife and scheming real estate-dealing brother, respectively) and narrated by Trudy and John's unborn child in utero — is quite possibly the worst idea for a novel ever.

Antithesis: In McEwan's hands, the hugely improbable feat of convincingly narrating a novel in the first person from the point of view of a fetus comes alive because McEwan is such a good writer, someone who drives his prose toward the impossible (and has done so throughout his career) in ways that continue to surprise. And a fetus is the perfect spokesling for the as-of-yet-unexplored terrain leading up the bloodbath that is "Hamlet": How can two people, both of whom must have loved another, conspire to kill another (a spouse), get away with it, and then how do they suffer for what their imaginations made them do? This is the stuff of very good literature.

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Discussion: The novel (McEwan's 17th book) begins with the unnamed fetus uncomfortably crammed in his mother's uterus some weeks before his inevitable eviction in a state of agitated suspension. Nabokov observed that many novels lurch forward because of eavesdropping (young Marcel spies on the music teacher's daughter Mademoiselle Vinteuil during a lesbian frolic; the hedges and closets and hallways and fountains of mountain spas are constructed, it seems, to provide Lermontov's characters with ways of knowing that which they shouldn't or can't otherwise). What better place to eavesdrop on a dastardly plot than from the comfort of someone's womb? That's what the fetus does from the start: He wombdrops on his mother and her boyfriend as they discuss   the fetus' father, John.

Trudy remains vaguely drawn in the beginning, which seems strange, her belly being the setting, after all. We are led to believe she is pretty, young and while solicitous of her unborn child at first, it is hard to know her except by association with Claude.

Claude is a real estate developer, a murderer of language, a dullard, a vigorous if brief lover and a snob. What he is pretty much tells us who Trudy is. At the end of the first chapter (the chapters are short), we hear Trudy say, "We can't do it." And Claude says, "We can." Plots are born out of such simplicity, out of such an embryo.

What they feel they can't and can do is dispose of John Cairncross (martyr anyone?), Trudy's separated-but-not-ex husband  and Claude's (gasp!) brother. Claude is broke (because he is stupid), Trudy doesn't have any money because she married into it, and John (a poet and publisher of poetry and a teacher of poetry and a reciter of poetry — and one wonders: With so much emphasis on poetry, are we being told that he is surely not long for this world? We are.) has inherited the family home, worth a cool $7 million. Get rid of John, give up the baby for adoption, get the house, sell the house and retire in Norway.

With the ticking bomb of the imminent birth rushing the story forward and with McEwan's undeniable facility with not just words but also feelings, the book largely hurtles toward the end (more on "largely" later) and is largely good. After John is served a poisoned smoothie (antifreeze) Trudy immediately regrets it: "She already sees how their plans have gone wrong, despite signs of early success. She's shivering. Asserting her innocence isn't viable after all. The prospect of a fight with Claude has shown her how lonely her independence could be." McEwan has always been stunningly good at exploring how intimacy is a precondition for betrayal, and that's on display here, though not as finely wrought as in earlier work such as "Amsterdam" and "On Chesil Beach."

Also on display is McEwan's undeniable verbal wit: After John is poisoned in his own kitchen and leaves behind the wheel of his car, Trudy and Claude are left behind with their crime: "This is the reckless thrill of the poisoner's art. The substance ingested, the act not yet complete…. They can only stand back and wait for the antithesis, for the antifreeze to leave him cold." That last line has an awful beauty worthy of Shakespeare.

Unfortunately (for the reader and the book, if not for McEwan), the author himself (or at least his thoughts) is on display, and it doesn't do the story any favors (hence the earlier "largely"). The fetus goes on about wine. Often. And long. "After a piercing white, a Pinot Noir is a mother's soothing hand. Oh, to be alive while such a grape exists! A blossom, a bouquet of peace and reason. No one seems to want to read aloud the label so I'm forced to make a guess, and hazard an Échezeaux Grand Cru." I was left thinking: Ian really loves wine.

Perhaps more inexcusable are the passages of political griping. "A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young," the fetus reports. "They're on the march, angry at the times, but mostly needful, longing for authority's blessing, its validation of their chosen identities. The decline of the West in new guise perhaps…. A social-media site famously proposes seventy-one gender options — neutrosis, two spirit, bigender…any colour you like.…" And I was left thinking: "Oh, Ian doesn't like or understand millennials." And that prose like this and the thinking behind it are grandiose rather than grand. I was left with an uncomfortable conclusion: That's McEwan! A fetus wouldn't think that!

Synthesis: And that last thought might be a nod in the direction of the book's success. He didn't suspend my disbelief. No. He created, in me, belief. I for the most part believed the unborn narrator. I liked his perspective. I wanted to see how it turned out. I didn't want John to die. And as guilty as she was, I really didn't want Trudy to suffer. In the hands and mind of anyone else, the idea might have been rotten. Maybe it is. But the book isn't. What games masters like McEwan get to play: They get to shove their stories into the monster's mouth and draw them out again unharmed.

David Treuer's most recent novel is "Prudence," out in paperback from Riverhead Books.

Nutshell
Nutshell (Nan A. Talese)

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Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese: 208 pp., $24.95

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