The unseen observer, is he bound to speak? McEwan’s In a Nutshell review


It’s been quite the winter, and here in Nevada we are only half way through the season. We can see snowfall as late as March. As I write it’s raining and snowing. This has been a record wet year, and again, we are only half way through the season!

We’ve had 12.63 inches (or roughly 32.09 centimeters) of rain since the start of the year. Our average yearly total is 9.23. As you might of guessed by now, we now have more water than the ground can hold. Great news if you are duck, but for us home dwellers this is becoming a nightmare. My lawn is now a pond and the water is starting to seep onto my patio. Good thing I held onto the sandbags I got a few weeks back. I am also learning how to sleep to the noise of a sump pump.

But enough about the weather. It’s been a while since I posted, but you will have to excuse me. Between snow shoveling and ark building I’ve been preoccupied. Ever Googled a cubit? Ever gone into a hardware store asking if they sell boards by the cubit? I don’t suggest you do, the look you get is not worth the giggle. I thought everyone but Americans built things using the metric system; leave it to God to make up his own system of measurement. Sigh.. All kidding aside, the one good thing about winter weather is that it makes for a great reading companion. And I have done a lot of reading these last few weeks. In fact, I have read a genre I haven’t had much enthusiasm for lately. I’ve started reading fiction again.

It started with some mentions on Twitter. A few readers whose opinions I highly respect mentioned reading McEwan’s In a Nutshell, based on Hamlet and liking it. Soon, the New Yorker and other magazines praised it as a tour de force and possibly McEwan’s best writing yet. The Washington post said, “It’s more brilliant than it has the right to be”. And this, my dear friends, is the best line of a review for the book you’ll read. It really does say it all. I cannot express myself enough about how much utter joy it gave me. It is modern fiction at its finest. If only other writers had half McEwan’s talent.

Now, stay with me, as the plot will seem beyond absurd. From the author’s webpage:

Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She’s still in the marital home — a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse — but John’s not here. Instead, she’s with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month-old resident of Trudy’s womb.

The story is told through the eyes of Trudy’s unborn son. He is the unseen observer of both Trudy’s betrayal and involvement to kill her husband, but more importantly, he observes and comments on modern life and this is where the fun begins. His observations are both comical and biting, This is the baby thinking about college life:

A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young. They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities. The decline of the West in new guise perhaps. Or the exaltation and liberation of the self.

Should inconvenient opinions hover near me like fallen angels or evil djinn (a mile being too near), I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life!

And like all good tragedies, he also makes us cry as we watch his helplessness as he is trapped in a situation that offers no control.

Unless, unless, unless–a wisp of a word, ghostly token of altered fate, bleating little iamb of hope, it drifts across my thoughts like a floater in the vitreous humour of an eye. Mere hope.

For those of us who are parents, this book will make you wonder if your prebirth actions were observed and noted. You may ask yourself if somehow, without forethought or intent, your actions affected your child’s worldview, as if he/she fed off  your words and the words of your outside contacts just as he fed off the food you ate. For those who bought into the idea that playing Mozart to an unborn child would make him/her a genius you have to ask yourself, what effect your daily activities had on the child? And even if you didn’t buy into this, you may find yourself wondering if your child formed his first opinions based on his prebirth observations. It’s both a scary and hilarious prospect. Especially with observations like this one:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.

Much like Shakespeare this book is contains layers. The most obvious is McEwan’s use of an unseen observer in order to write about modern thought and society. The other is a tad bit more nuanced; the hard choices we make and the ripple effects that sometimes nudge but often wash over those around us.The baby’s mother is tragic in the sense that she seems to be bereft of any sense of true dignity and self-awareness, much like Hamlet’s mother who enters into a pact with Claudius out of lust and possibly self-preservation but without thinking about the consequences of those around her. In fact I would say we don’t feel for McEwan’s expectant mother like we do Gertrude because as a modern women there are more choices available to her. And unlike Gertrude she is no innocent pawn of Claudius’ plot.

There are nods to Hamlet, naturally, but you don’t have to be a Shakespeare fan to enjoy this book. It stands alone as a great piece of modern literature. But like Hamlet, be prepared for a tragic ending; this is no modern fairytale.

Works Cited

McEwan, Ian In a Nutshell Random House September 2016. Print Edition

Washington Post, Ian McEwan’s In a Nutshell a tale of betrayal and murder as told by a fetus. September 12, 2016. Online

For giggles I have to admit I heard the baby in the voice of the E-Trade baby. This was a series of commercials that stared a talking baby. For my UK readers and those who do not remember I offer these clip. After finishing the book you may need a good laugh, so I urge you to go back again re-watch them

Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North The dumbing down of Shakespeare

Ryan North Riverhead Books Penguin Random House 2016
Ryan North
Riverhead Books
Penguin Random House

“You are Sari! Right now you are standing in a library looking at the books in the “New Arrival” rack, wondering if “Romeo and/or Juliet a chooseable-path adventure” would smell just as sweet as the original story. You hesitantly reach out to pick it up.

If you pick it up continue to paragraph 2.

If you laugh and think, “oh hell no”, stop reading this post.

You pick it up wondering if this is truly something that would encourage your average teen to become engaged with Shakespeare. You flip to a random page out of curiosity. With mild trepidation you read a paragraph. The first thing you notice is the simplistic writing style. The author uses short, concise sentences. You wonder if he does this out of fear that his audience has a short attention span. As you read on, you wonder if the author has a short attention span. As you flip to the next page to read more, you wonder if the author is 10 years old. You begin to regret your current life choices, beginning when you read the title of the book you now hold in your hand.

It’s occurred to me that with the plethora of books we’ve seen published in the last 24 months with “Shakespeare” in their titles that my best course of action would be to smother my keyboard with tuna and allow my cat license to stomp around my computer for a few hours and then submit the mess to a publisher under the title “A Feline’s Guide to Shakespeare”. My luck it would hit the bestseller’s list and my cat would become the academic hero of the family. When will publishers say, “Enough is enough”!

Oh sure this book by Ryan North is full of words, words, words, but as an intro to Shakespeare it is useless. The library has classified the book as suitable for ages 8 to 16. Did the publisher suggest this? I’m not sure a book that makes use of several sexual references is suitable for 8 year olds and the writing is far too simplistic for 16 year olds.

In this adventure you start out as Juliet but quickly become Romeo who can choose to fall in love with Juliet or fall in love with a dude (North’s word, not mine), making it very un-Shakespeare like and more of a modern “politically correct” book. So much for Shakespeare.

There is very little in the way of Shakespeare’s work in this book. Most of it consists of Ryan’s self-indulging humor(I could almost hear him laughing at his own jokes). He starts off on the wrong foot when he says it’s Juliet’s 17th birthday (she’s actually 14) and quickly goes off the rails from there.

You have things to do too, Juliet. You tear through some quick stomach crunches (three reps of ten) and some pec blasts (four reps of eight), and your ready to start your day. So! Your well muscled and your family’s rich. What’s for breakfast? (page 4)

This is modern Shakespeare?
This is modern Shakespeare?

How are we to take this book? Surly this cannot be taken as a serious effort to get teens into classical literature. And if this is indicative of modern teen books, it shouldn’t surprise us that fewer and fewer teens are choosing to read as a leisurely pursuit.

It appears Mr. North does have an audience. His first choose an adventure book, Hamlet, was funded by Kickstarter. That book turned out to be the most funded publishing project for the company to date. This must have emboldened Mr. North to try again with Random House behind the project. I just wish I understood his aim (besides monetary gain). Did he really believe he this would bring teens closer to Shakespeare or did he also notice that anything with Shakespeare in its title would be easy to publish?

Personally I don’t think dumbing down Shakespeare or turning his work into adventure stories is doing our culture any favors. I see this type of art as part of the problem we are now facing. The government’s emphasis on more science-based education is pushing the Humanities to the outer edges. Colleges are bemoaning the fact that students are not receiving a well-rounded education because of this. Books like North’s do little in the way of helping the situation, as his simplistic approach to “Shakespeare” is little more than an adventure into the land of pop-fiction. And lousy pop-fiction at that.

I’d recommend skipping this adventure.