Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

In a nutshell (oh, no…not only did I just make a pretty bad pun but it’s also obvious), Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is Hamlet retold. That was the project, though, so it’s not a surprise. Check out Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed for more retold Shakespeare. Or stay tuned—it’s on my “to be read” pile and I’m sure I’ll have things to say!

So, Hamlet. Seems as good as any place to start. Reasons why Hamlet and I are buddies (the guy, not the play): I, too, talk to skulls that I randomly pull out of the ground sometimes. I also yell that women should get to nunneries, whether inspired by a genuine wish to preserve them from the world around them or because I believe all women are faithless manipulators.

Sorry, I lied. I do none of that. And I hope I have little in common with Hamlet, who is, on the whole, rather inflated with his own sense of self-importance and also pretty whiny. I know, he’s depressed: his father has recently died and since then the man’s ghost has been wandering the castle, occasionally dropping the imperative that Hamlet should get some good old-fashioned revenge, since really Hamlet Sr. was MURDERED by his brother (now married to his wife/Hamlet’s mother). It makes sense that Hamlet’s a bit confused and pretty uneasy. Although I’m not sure whether his mom really had a choice in the whole remarriage thing—let’s be honest, Shakespeare writes some good female characters, sometimes, but others the women have less clear motivation.

If you haven’t read Hamlet (or seen it, I guess, since it’s a play that’s also been made into movies and whatnot), you’ve probably already stopped reading. But just in case you haven’t, I’m about to explain and/or spoil it for you. As I said, Hamlet’s dad’s ghost is busy lurking around and scaring guards slash instructing Hamlet to get revenge on his throne-stealing and murdering brother. Hamlet’s not super sure what to do, as one wouldn’t be when a ghost appears to tell someone to go kill their uncle and mother, so he starts roaming the castle talking nonsense and debating his next actions, thinking about suicide (“To be or not to be” sound familiar?) and murder and his soul and yelling at his lady-love Ophelia. He starts plotting how to find out whether his uncle really did it, thinks he’s confirmed it, murders Ophelia’s nosy dad Polonius (“A rat!”), leaves town with some spies who are secretly taking him to get executed, joins a band of pirates, comes back to town, chats with a skull, duels Ophelia’s brother (Ophelia’s gone crazy and either killed herself or accidentally died), and dies, along with pretty much everyone else. Yeah, definitely spoiled it. But it’s a tragedy, so what did you expect?

Nutshell starts with baby-Hamlet, who isn’t actually named yet because really he’s still a fetus. But he’s remarkable well-spoken, due in large part to the fact that his mom listens to podcasts. Because listening to a bunch of podcasts as a fetus of course makes you extremely culturally aware, eloquently verbose, and philosophically adept. Since he’s all of those things. Oh yeah, and he also loves wine. Plus he knows a lot about it. A crazy lot. Like if that baby and I had a conversation about wine, I’d be lost in two seconds.

He adores his mom Trudy, even though he’s consistently pissed about the fact that she’s left his poet father John in order to take up a supremely dull lover, Claude. He really likes John and his poems, even though he thinks the man is rather pathetic as regards his lapsed relationship with his wife. John’s not very successful though he owns a ramshackle mansion left to him by his parents, where Trudy and Claude now live.

I’ll try not to spoil too much, but really, it’s based on Hamlet, so I’m not too concerned. After all, you should already know what to expect, in part. Especially because of my synopsis a minute ago. Basically, baby finds out that Claude is actually his uncle and is disgusted, horrified by his mother even more than before. Then his father shows up and says some things that make his mom angry and Trudy and Claude begin to plot.

It’s not really what happens that matters in this novel, it’s how we get there. I’ve only ever read Atonement before as far as Ian McEwan goes, but this novel was definitely reminiscent of the writing style I’d begun to associate with McEwan, though exaggeratedly so. It’s supremely literary; each sentence is its own masterpiece. Baby’s philosophical musings are acrobatic, to say the least: his only tether to the world is the umbilical cord and so, floating in the liminal space of his mother’s womb, he finds himself able to imagine the abstract much more easily than the concrete. He goes on a thought journey once about colors, having never seen any himself. His father’s poetry seems to have fundamentally impacted his thought patterns as the lyricism is rampant, no matter what he’s talking about (even the moments when Trudy and Claude are having rather horrific—for the reader as for the baby though not as much for Trudy or Claude—sex).

It’s fairly quick to read, really. It’s a slim book, and though I’m sure you could stop and consider (admire) a sentence for extended periods of time, particularly as the plot is really such a minor part of the novel, it often seems sensationless. Told from the point of view of a fetus makes stream of consciousness all the more a mentally floating journey along the lazy river (one or two rapids, maybe) of baby’s spatially void existence.

In some ways, it’s difficult to discuss this book in the abstract. It’s itself incredibly abstract and so the process of discussing it seems to need to be concrete. A moment, perhaps; a close read, maybe. A tangential conversation about an idea proposed by the baby. But really, that’s not my scope here.

Those who love Shakespeare and Hamlet will undoubtedly get amusement from reading this, taking into account the differences and the extreme poeticism of the writing (apt, I suppose, for Shakespeare). Those who enjoy philosophy and/or literarily/poetically-written books will enjoy the book. The “lay reader”—that is, someone who neither likes Shakespeare (“What’s he saying?” shouted in frustration during courses) nor enjoys lyrical writing—probably won’t enjoy this as much but could certainly give the first few pages a try. After all, there’s a lot in here.

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