Book Review – Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Book Review – Nutshell by Ian McEwan

After panting and wheezing my way though a couple of doorstop books (not all of which did their weight justice), I was relieved recently to have been confronted with the dainty new 199-page novel from Ian McEwen, Nutshell. McEwen is one of those people, like Woody Allen or Philip Roth or Martin Scorcese, where a a new offering simply requires a mandatory pilgrimage, even if there are certain to be disappointments along the way.  Saturday, Atonement and Amsterdam had engraved McEwan’s name on my must-always-read list, and its economy was an added attraction. 

This book’s premise is an audacious conceit. The narrator is the main protagonist’s unborn boy-child, nestled snugly in her womb, where he is witness to murder-most-foul. I say this with intent because the foetus hilariously narrates in faux-Shakespearean English (the book is set in our current time), full of poetry, soaring soliloquy and flowery flights of imagination and introspection. This is a high-wire act, and when it became clear who was narrating (within minutes of starting the book), I got  a little anxious – this is just silly, I thought – it cannot sustain. A foetus (even if one were to grant literary license), has never seen the world. How can it possibly be our ubiquitous narrator?

Ah, but McEwen is a master of device (his most recent, Sweet Tooth, reveals the entire story to have been a brilliant deceit in the final pages). In Nutshell he smartly fashions the mechanisms of this unborn baby’s knowledge – he has heard his mother in conversation, he has heard podcasts late into the night as his mother struggles with insomnia, he has heard the muffled TV, the radio. He knows a great deal, our foetus, without ever having to have opened his eyes.

And then there is the plot. An old-fashioned English murder nefariously planned by the mother and her lover, directed at our baby’s father – a cuckolded, impecunious and unheralded publisher of poetry, now separated and forced out of the house that he owns (and which his would be killers want). Our little womb-bound hero knows of the murder plans, what can he do? He loves his mother and his father – what is to become of his life of the murder plans succeed? What if she is caught? His, um, erudite babylike musings on these matters make up much of the clever and lightly comedic backdrop of the novel.  There are plot holes galore, the murder and its undoing is reasonably predictable, but it is all bundled together in a literary and good-natured package and serves more to advertise McEwan’s mastery of language, dialogue and quintessential British comedic understatement than it does to advance the crime genre in which it unfolds.

There are some truly funny scenes – our tiny hero’s periodic disgust as his mother’s oafish and oversexed lover takes her from behind, squashing his little head with his thrusting penis.  Our unborn child’s unashamed and very modern admission of his drinking problem, a result of his mother’s excessive fondness for fine wines. His terror of ending up as an foster baby in a 13th story walk-up.

This is undoubtedly the first (perhaps) and last time we will have a foetus as a novel’s narrator. In less experienced hands this could been a terrible mess. But this novelist knows his way around storytelling (20 books, excluding librettos and oratorios and screenplays). And perhaps he dashed this off in the metaphorical equivalent of an afternoon, but it was worth the quick pilgrimage this author’s work demands.

Book Review – Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

Book Review – Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
There is a sub-sub genre of American literature, a shelf labelled the American Jewish Experience. As short as this shelf is, it groans under weight of great American writers – Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Heller, Mailer, to name the obvious ones. Jonathan Safran Foer, whose name was made in his 20s with his mega-successes Everything is Illuminated and Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close piles muscularly and rudely into this august company with his latest, Here I Am, ten years in the making.
This is a long, sprawling, shambolic and largely (although not completely) successful addition to this genre. The book pokes unrestrainedly and gleefully and often painfully into every nook and cranny of a reluctantly secular East Coast American Jewish family – its broken heart and it angst and its desperation and its ancient and partially believed rituals and its endless pride. There is almost nowhere that this novel does not go (a 12 page description of a 13 year old’s masturbatory excesses is a shockingly funny nod of recognition to Roth’s Portnoy, whom he renders rather quaint by comparison). It peers into the carnage of a failing marriage, the tension between secularity and religion, the tenuous, fracturing and heartbreaking loyalty between American Jews and Israeli Jews and finally the constant worrying and questioning and second-guessing and on-the-other-handing of the Jewish intellectual, caught endlessly and uncomfortably between his warring head and heart.
At the centre of of the book is Jacob Bloch, a successful but unfulfilled TV writer, and his family. There is his wife Julia, an architect who designs houses she will never build, soon to leave him. There are his three smart, funny, precocious and sometimes soulful boys, the oldest of whom has found escape from his confusing teenage world in an alternate reality game called Other Life where he inhabits the avatar of a witty young woman he creates. The is his father Irv, a life spent raging ceaselessly and fruitlessly against anti-semitism and the Arab threat to Israel, his beloved holocaust-surviving grandfather Isaac, his childhood cousin, Tamir, long decamped to Israel to become a different sort of Jew. These characters are all massive, flawed, gentle, cruel, caring, but mostly rendered rabid and unhappy by self-analysis and and endless philosophising. But along the way the reader is treated to truly soaring dialogue – a long marijuana-fueled rhapsody between Jacob and his Israeli cousin, a startling Bar-Mitzvah speech, banters of love and frustration within a fractured family.
The opening lines of this book sets the stage – ‘When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to Jewish Home’. This is not metaphorical – the Middle East is struck by a massive and utterly destructive earthquake, as is the Bloch family in the US, in many smaller but no less upending ways. The book belongs to Jacob, and Foer spends 600 pages wondering through his complex and confusing head – we love him, we hate him, we care about him, we marvel at his intellect and wisdom, we wish he would just STOP over-thinking and find out who he is. We wish him peace, which he rebuffs at every opportunity.
Sadly, the last 100 pages of this bristling novel falters badly – it seems to lose its direction, its voice and its heart as it bounces dizzily forwards and backwards in time. This is perhaps the greatest curse of famous writers, who might not accept instruction from well-meaning editors (it reminded me of the rambling and unnecessary last 100 pages of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch).
Nevertheless. This book is a large mountain to climb. You will get tired and hungry and grumpy. But along the way, the views. Oh my, the views.