Narrated from a refreshingly unique perspective, McEwan’s ‘Nutshell’ hails his return to form and to the dizzying heights of Olympus of modern British literature. At his best, McEwan’s works feature the odd and bizarre, the darkly humorous, the disturbing; the uncomfortably human. In the case of ‘Nutshell’ McEwan opts for yet another unexpected choice: the narrative voice. Who better to contemplate the state of the world than a foetus?
In a nutshell, ‘Nutshell’ is an unequivocally post-modern novella. Indeed, if unsure what defines such a text, McEwan’s latest addition to an already impressive literary menagerie is one fine example. First and foremost, the overarching tragic plotline of premeditated murder provides the prenatal narrator with an excellent opportunity to reflect on the state of the world, and despair. So deep is the narrator’s ‘existential crisis’, an ironic contradiction in itself, that he faces the doubts and uncertainties that often define the modern day and age prior to even having the opportunity of experiencing the excessive ‘privileges, … delights, as well as complaints’ of the real world. In the words of yet another tragic hero, the reinvention of which ‘Nutshell’ could be considered (not to mention of the great staple of Western literature: Greek tragedy), ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’. After all there is much that is disagreeable about the modern world as the narrator concludes: poverty, constant conflicts, drawn-out cultural hangovers …, a general loss of common human decency. Before he is even born, the narrator (already benefiting from the incessant flow of information supplied by new technologies) concludes that after the great hopes of the previous centuries, humanity’s clock now signals ‘dusk in the second Age of Reason’. Although the typical idealised father figure is seen through the aptly named John Cairncross, the ‘kindness and self-effacing sensitivity’ of this modern day prophetic figure while praised, is also cynically questioned in his (im)possibility of success in becoming ‘envoy to the future’. So disillusioned is the narrator with the sad state of the world and its bleak prognosis that he bemoans the very existence of human consciousness and instead of perceiving awareness as the beginning of life, he views is as ‘the end of illusion … The triumph of realism over magic’. The symbolism of the house in ‘domestic’ disarray filled with litter is arguably not only used to present the tangle of the love triangle, murder and profit, but to epitomise the ‘decay’ of society as such.
Secondly, the narrative is interwoven with numerous cultural and intertextual references. In fact, spotting them is almost like its own detective game. Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Descartes, Locke, Burns, Blake, Shelley: they are all part of this very much literal internal dramatic monologue; the selection of philosophers, poets and forms known for their reflection of human condition hardly a coincidence. Particularly interesting is the sceptical, or perhaps rather disappointed, rumination on biology and its ‘binary’ restrictions (the limitations of ‘binary … only two’ options appear to permeate the novella in the age old gender, good vs evil, existence and its futility … clashes). While McEwan almost appears to attack the notion that we are the civilised, cultured and well-adjusted society built on reason, education and tolerance as his narrator debates the tabula rasa theory, the hope and aspirations to the freedom of spirit are equally present in the ‘I’ll feel, therefore I’ll be,’ personal philosophy.
It is this very element of acceptance of the world, if reluctantly, as it is paired with some ultimate searching for ‘justice, then meaning’, together with McEwan’s dark humour and open satire that firmly fix ‘Nutshell’ as a post-modern novella. Rather openly, McEwan pointedly denounces Modernism (and the frequent malaise of the modern day as it happens) as it is ‘too much about the self’ although we have ‘never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived’ at the expense of the bigger story of ‘nine billion heroes’ facing the plot twist of ‘nuclear exchange’.
To befit the literary tradition, ‘Nutshell’ is, well, literary. McEwan uses the recurrent motif of poetry as symbolic of thenideal, values and all that is unspoilt. Starting with the paternal figure of the idealistic poet John Cairncross in the direct, binary opposition to the materialistic, plotting and ‘devious’ Claude, McEwan establishes the theme of destructive obsession with profit that ultimately destroys the very notion of the developed Western world and all that is supposedly held in high esteem. The narrator’s alliance with the ideal is subtly expressed through measuring time in ‘thoughtful iambs’ and ‘well-sprung pentameters’. How far we have fallen from what we had as humanity aspired to, our hopes and our abandonment of tradition at the expense of everyday prose is in my opinion represented by the relationship with, or rather disinterest in, poetry now we do not have time for ‘the unmodish form of a sonnet’. The poetic soul is ‘pleading his cause’ for love and acceptance ‘without hope’.
Sadly, as finally even Cairncross observes, love no longer seems to inhabit the world of grand passions, ardent words and romantic whimsy. The mother is no longer satisfied with the well-intentioned and, for the cynical world, perhaps badly adjusted John; she does not ‘want to hear another poem’ as long as she lives. Unwittingly, by choosing the financially successful Claude, she chooses the slavery to money over the freedom within. McEwan puts forward an unpleasant representation of modern relationships which are ‘minimal … bleakly modern’, perfunctory and with ‘no playful daydreams’. However, as is prerequisite of the tragic elements of the text, the fate of such relationships is already sealed; the meticulously orchestrated death of the poet is simply the end.
‘The rest is chaos.’