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Review: ‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan – parable for the planet’s unborn

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

“Nutshell” is a novel by the acclaimed, Booker Prize-winning British writer Ian Mc Ewan that is in essence a bizarre, funny, macabre and contemporary tale that is clearly related to Shakespeare’s seminal and universal play “Hamlet”.

“Nutshell” is a classy and eminently readable novel but I initially found some aspects of the novel quite revolting because the story is told by the unborn child of a heavily pregnant, faithless mother who has frequent passionate sex with her brother-in-law and is plotting the murder of her husband, the unborn child’s father. However “Nutshell” shares the universality of “Hamlet”, and as a parable for the as yet unborn of Humanity can be seen from a science-informed humanist perspective as extending the personal life-or-death dilemma of Hamlet, “To be or not to be, that is the question”, to encompass the present worsening, existential threat to Humanity, the Biosphere and indeed most life on Earth.

 In that sense “Nutshell” can be seen as a parable for the unborn, for the future generations who will have to repair the environmental disaster we are bequeathing them or die in the attempt. Indeed “Nutshell” should become a cult novel for the young and the unborn facing the worsening speciescide, ecocide, omnicide and prospective terracide (death of most life on Earth).

At this point it is useful to recount the essence of Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” as reflected in the novel “Nutshell” so that people who have yet to read the novel will better appreciate Ian Mc Ewan’s cleverness as a writer [Mc Ewan’s characters are given below in square brackets]. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark [the unborn child], is the son of King Hamlet [John Cairncross, the unborn child’s father] who has been secretly murdered by his brother and thence King, Claudius [Claude], who also marries the widowed Queen Gertrude [Trudy, the unborn child’s mother].

The ghost of King Hamlet appears before sentinels and thence Prince Hamlet who is enjoined to avenge his death and subsequently becomes upset and disaffected. Polonius, King Claudius’ adviser, tries to find out what is up with Hamlet and enjoins his daughter, Ophelia, to return love letters to Hamlet. Touring players put on a play in which a king is poisoned, this prompting Claudius to angrily leave, this confirming his guilt for Hamlet. Polonius spies on Queen Gertrude and Hamlet behind a curtain but is slain by Hamlet believing him to be Claudius. Hamlet is sent to England with courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who carry a secret letter asking the English king to kill the bearer. However a suspicious Hamlet replaces the letter with a forgery, this resulting in the death instead of the courtiers. Ophelia has broken with Hamlet and evidently drowns herself. Hamlet returns to her funeral. The play ends with a flurry of deadly violence – Queen Gertrude drinks a poisoned cup meant by King Claudius for Hamlet. Polonius’ son Laertes wounds Hamlet with a poisoned blade but the weapon changes hands and Hamlet fatally wounds Laertes who in dying confesses Claudius’ plot to kill Hamlet. Hamlet slays Claudius and then dies in the arms of his good friend Horatio, enjoining him to tell all and famously concluding “the rest is silence”. The Norwegian King Fortinbras (whose father was slain by King Hamlet) arrives and assumes the Danish crown.

“Nutshell” gives a first clue to the “unborn child as Hamlet” with a prefatory quote from Prince Hamlet in discussion with Rosencrantz over Hamlet’s assertion that “Denmark is a prison”: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams”. This assertion is immediately preceded in the play by Hamlet’s famous contradiction of Rosencrantz’s denial of Denmark as a prison: “Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” (Hamlet, Act II. Scene II). “Nutshell” concludes with the child saying “The rest is chaos” (page 199).

Just 9 pages into the book, at the end of chapter 1 of the novel, the unborn child reveals his first intimation of the wicked plot of the lovers, his uncle Claude and his mother Trudy, to murder his father (who has been persuaded to leave the valuable marital house by Trudy): “One hot, restless night last week, when I thought both were long asleep, my mother said suddenly into the darkness, two hours before dawn by the clock in my father’s study, “We can’t do it.” And straight away Claude said flatly, “We can.” And then, after a moment’s reflection, “We can.”” “Nutshell” plays out like a richly literary and very funny expansion of a macabre tale by Roald Dahl. Accordingly, you might guess from the beginning that the gentle, humane poet John Cairncross is at great risk of being murdered by the greedy and lustful lovers, Claude and Trudy, but that the tale will have unexpected twists. I’ll say no more, I won’t spoil the story for you.

The characters of this ménage à trois reveal “Nutshell” as a parable for the young and unborn of existentially threatened Humanity- that is, according to my perception, since “thinking makes it so”. The unborn baby’s father, John Cairncross, is a gentle, caring, loving, impoverished poet who turns the other cheek in relation to his awful wife Trudy and his appalling brother Claude. When Trudy declares that she does not want him in the marital mansion, the valuable property that he inherited, John dutifully accedes to her request. John represents the beauty and truth side of Humanity, the side that would surely empathize with the social humanist (socialist, ecosocialist, Green-Left) ideal of sustainably maximizing the happiness, opportunity and dignity of all human beings through evolving inter-personal, international or intra-national contracts (see Brian Ellis, “Social Humanism. A Metaphysical Approach”). Indeed one notes that “Cairncross” theologically implies a “memorial to loving sacrifice for Humanity”.

In stark contrast we have the rich, rude, crude, ruthless, barbarous, neoliberal capitalist Claude. The unborn baby sees him thus: “For Claude is a man who prefers to repeat himself. A man of riffs. On shaking hands with a stranger – I’ve heard this twice –he’ll say, “Claude as in Debussy.” How wrong he is. This is Claude as in property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing. He enjoys a thought, speaks it aloud, then later has it again, and – why not? – says it again. Vibrating the air a second time with this thought is integral to his pleasure. He knows you know he’s repeating himself [page 5]… Who is this Claude, this fraud who’s wormed in between my family and my hopes? I heard it once and took note: the dull-brained yokel… And Claude, like a floater, is barely real. Not even a colourful character, no hint of the smiling rogue. Instead, dull to the point of brilliance, vapid beyond invention, his banality as finely wrought as the arabesques of the Blue Mosque.

Here is a man who whistles continually, not songs but TV jingles, ringtones, who brightens a morning with Nokia’s mockery of Tárrega. Whose repeated remarks are a witless, thrustless dribble, whose impoverished sentences die like motherless chicks, cheaply fading. Who washes his private parts at the basin where my mother washes her face. Who knows only clothes and cars. And has told us a hundred times that he would never buy or even drive such, or such, or a hybrid or a … or … That he only buys his suits in this, no, that Mayfair street, his shirts in some other, and socks from, he can’t recall… If only … but. No one else ends a sentence on “but”. That stale uncertain voice.” (pages 21-22). Claude is the archetypal crass neoliberal who believes in the currently dominant, neoliberal economic ideology that demands maximum freedom for the smart and advantaged to exploit the natural and human resources of the world in endless pursuit of private profit. This obscene, greed-driven, neoliberal ideology leads to disaster in the novel and has already driven the Earth to the edge of climate disaster.

Claude is just an oh-so-polite, oh-so-very-English version of the rabid, neoliberal excrescences around the world, with the success of extreme right-wing, racist, bigoted, sexist, climate change denialist, billionaire oaf Donald Trump (“the dull-brained yokel”) representing the most powerful expression of right-wing, populist and nationalist delusion, ignorance and stupidity. In Trumpist Australia the English-derived Mainstream pretence that it is not racist despite having racist policies (classic PC racism or politically correct racism) is now wearing thin with the re-emergence of the extreme right-wing, ignorant, stupid, racist, bigoted, extreme Islamophobic, climate change denialist, and populist One Nation Party as a likely political king-maker with 10% of the national vote and 30% of the vote in red-neck Queensland.

While 15 years ago the ruling right-wing Australian Liberal Party-National Party Coalition under US lackey and warmonger John Howard totally rejected One Nation because of its explicit anti-Indigenous and anti-Asian racism (“we are being swamped by Asians”) , today the Coalition Government “respects” the substantial proportion of the population who voted for a One Nation Party that has somehow “matured” (by extending its racism and bigotry to Muslims?). Indeed in this week’s state elections in Western Australia, the Coalition and One Nation swapped preferential support in Australia’s preferential voting system while the Labor Party and the Greens remained principled (zero tolerance for racism) and put the racist One Nation last. 20th century history informs that Fascism may well follow when ignorant, stupid, racist extremists get a foot in the door.

Trudy, the unborn baby’s mother, represents us ordinary folk with some sense of right and wrong but driven along by the ordinary weaknesses of lust and desire for gratification coupled with moral and physical laziness. Thus Trudy drinks while knowing that this will harm the unborn baby. Indeed Trudy plans to give away the baby when it is born (but the unborn baby still loves her). Rubbish accumulates in the hallway of the marital mansion, attracting flies (this recalling the sentinel’s famous comment after seeing the ghost of King Hamlet: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”). Ian McEwan mixes his metaphors and gives a moral ambivalence to Trudy who reminds one of Lady Macbeth who, driven by greed and jealousy, urges Macbeth to kill King Duncan but then suffers pangs of guilt: “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, Oh, Oh!”

Ian McEwan is great on sex (read his disturbing description of a seminal, semen-spraying coitus interruptus event in his novel “On Chesil Beach”) and is disturbingly penetrating, indeed disgustingly detailed, but always wickedly entertaining, in giving the unborn baby’s revolting accounts of Claude’s sex with the heavily pregnant Trudy. Thus snippets of the unborn baby’s account of his mother’s rapid achievement of orgasm: “Only the accelerating creak of the bed, until at last my mother arrives to take her place on the Wall of Death and begins to scream… She screams louder, then, after her final, rising-falling shout-and-shudder, I hear his abrupt, strangled grunt. The briefest pause. Exit Claude. The mattress dips again and his voice resumes, now from the bathroom – a reprise of Curzon Street or the day of the week, and some cheerful assays on the Nokia theme. One act, three minutes at most, no repeats” (page 23).

Ian McEwan has the unborn baby recount at length the expert view he hears via electronic media of our tottering world: “An expert in international relations, a reasonable woman with a rich deep voice, advised me that the world was not well… Uniting and levelling all humanity, the dull old facts of altered climate, vanishing forests, creatures and polar ice. Profitable and poisonous agriculture, obliterating biological beauty. Oceans turning to weak acid. Well above the horizon, approaching fast, the ruinous tsunami of the burgeoning old, cancerous and demented, demanding care. And soon, with demographic transition, the reverse, populations in catastrophic decline. Free speech no longer free, liberal democracy no longer the port of destiny, robots stealing jobs, liberty in close combat with security, socialism is disgrace, capitalism corrupt, destructive and in disgrace, no alternatives in sight. In conclusion, she said, these disasters are the work of our twin natures. Clever and infantile. We’ve built a world too complicated and dangerous for our quarrelsome natures to manage. In such hopelessness, the general vote will be for the supernatural. It’s dusk in the second Age of Reason. We were wonderful, but now we are doomed” (pages 26-27).

Doomed we certainly are but not necessarily totally doomed. The 2015 Paris Climate Conference achieved a consensus that a maximum temperature rise limit relative to 1900 of 1.5 degree Centigrade ( 1.5C) was most desirable and that a mutually-agreed catastrophic plus 2C must be avoided. However the world got to +1.2C in 2016, +1.5C will now be reached in 4-10 years , and a catastrophic +2C temperature rise is now effectively unavoidable (for numerous expert scientific or otherwise science-informed opinions about this Google “Are we doomed?” and “Too late to avoid global warming catastrophe”).

Presently about 7.5 million people die avoidably (prematurely) each year due to carbon fuel burning and from the consequent deadly effects of carbon burning pollutants (7.0 million) or climate change (0.5 million). This latter estimate of presently about 0.5 million climate change-related deaths may be an under-estimate because UN Population Division demographic data indicate that 17 million people die avoidably (prematurely) each year (half of them children) due to poverty and deprivation in the Developing World (minus China), with these impoverished, tropical or sub-tropical Developing countries already being severely impacted by global warming. Indeed the direst estimates are that the death toll due to climate change could rise to 100 million such deaths per year this century if man-made climate change is not requisitely addressed.

Thus both Dr. James Lovelock FRS (Gaia hypothesis) and Professor Kevin Anderson ( Deputy Director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, UK) have estimated that only about 0.5 billion people will survive this century due to unaddressed, man-made global warming. These estimates translate to an ever-worsening Climate Genocide involving deaths of 10 billion people this century, this including roughly twice the present population of particular mainly non-European groups, specifically 6 billion under-5 year old infants, 3 billion Muslims in a terminal Muslim Holocaust, 2 billion Indians, 1.3 billion non-Arab Africans, 0.5 billion Bengalis, 0.3 billion Pakistanis and 0.3 billion Bangladeshis (Google “Climate Genocide”).

Just as Claude (Claudius) and Trudy (Gertrude) have betrayed the unborn child (Hamlet) so we have betrayed the young and future generations. However we can still follow the “truth and beauty” way of John (remembering that John was “the one who loved Jesus”, and noting that from the secular Humanist perspective Jesus was a wonderful Palestinian humanitarian and the agrarian world’s first socialist, as correctly perceived by Mikhail Gorbachev ). Even though a catastrophic plus 2C global average temperature rise is now unavoidable we must do everything we can to make the future “less bad” for future generations. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “You may think your actions are meaningless and that they won't help, but that is no excuse, you must still act.”

Dr. James Hansen, (former head, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at 100-Nobel-Laureate Columbia University) raised the horrendous prospect of a lifeless planet due to man-made climate change (2009): “After the ice has gone, would the Earth proceed to the Venus syndrome, a runaway greenhouse effect that would destroy all life on the planet, perhaps permanently? While that is difficult to say based on present information, I’ve come to conclude that if we burn all reserves of oil, gas, and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty” (James Hansen, “Storms of My Grandchildren", Bloomsbury, 2009, page 236). Neoliberal, climate change denialist and “dull-brained yokel” Donald Trump has committed to unlimited fossil fuel exploitation, to allowing the Keystone XL pipeline carrying tar sands oil from Alberta to Texas, and to scrapping US support for the Paris Climate Agreement. He has just appointed an anti-science climate change denier to head the US EPA.

Another way of seeing the neoliberal crime against the unborn is via the notion of inescapable Climate Debt. The damage-related cost of carbon pollution has been estimated by Dr. Chris Hope (the Judge Business School of 90-Nobel-Laureate Cambridge University) at about $200 per tonne of CO2-equivalent (greenhouse gas pollution measured in terms of equivalently global warming masses of carbon dioxide). It can be readily estimated from historical greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution data that the total Carbon Debt of the world from 1751-2016 is about 1,850 billion tonnes CO2 (1.85 trillion tonnes CO2) and, assuming a damage-related Carbon Price of $200 per tonne CO2-equivalent, this corresponds to a Carbon Debt of $370 trillion, similar to the total wealth of the world and 4.5 times the world’s total annual GDP. The world’s GHG pollution is increasing at a recently re-calculated 64 billion tonnes CO2-equivalent per year i.e. the Carbon Debt in increasing at $12.8 trillion each year or at about one-sixth of world GDP annually (Google “Carbon Debt, Carbon Credit”). Unlike conventional debt that can be simply wiped out by default, bankruptcy or printing money, this horrendous Carbon Debt for future generations is inescapable - unless huge sea walls are built, coastal cities will drown and the world’s richest, deltaic farming lands will become salinized deserts. Dr. James Hansen and colleagues recently stated (2015): “There is evidence of ice melt, sea level rise to +5–9 m [metres], and extreme storms in the prior interglacial period that was less than 1 °C warmer than today.”

Art as well as Science can help Humanity address the worsening, neoliberalism-driven climate emergency. Dr. James Hansen wrote the scientific book “Storms About My Grandchildren” as a world-leading climate scientist deeply conscious of the irreversible climate crimes being committed against his grandchildren and the as yet the unborn future generations. Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell” approaches the impending doom of humanity with Art by a brilliant present-day writer inspired by Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Hamlet’s immortal words “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell” deserves to be a cult book for the young, future generations and indeed the not-so-young presently already facing a worsening climate emergency and worsening climate genocide.

Empowered by such powerful messages from both Art and Science, decent Humanity (and especially the young) must (a) inform everyone they can, and (b) urge and apply Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the disproportionately polluting, climate criminal people, politicians, corporations and countries, of which the world leaders include Trump America and Trumpist Australia (see Gideon Polya, “Exposing And Thence Punishing Worst Polluter Nations Via Weighted Annual Per Capita Greenhouse Gas Pollution Scores”, Countercurrents, 19 March, 2016: ).

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