Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell, published in paperback this June, the month in which its author turns 69. McEwan forged an edgy early reputation by shell-shocking readers, or at least reviewers, with the violent, sexualised or neglected child narrators of his short stories. To find a narrator to recount the story Nutshell, he regresses back to the womb, literally. The novel’s story is told by an unborn foetus, comfortably sequestered away from the world and alone with his own thoughts. The narrator is however worried about the plot being hatched by his mother Trudy and his father’s brother Claude, placing him in a position the book’s title likens to Hamlet’s remark that “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
McEwan’s approach in Nutshell is highly unusual and brings to mind several other extraordinary narrators. There are the surprising child narrators of a number of excellent recent novels, ranging in age from the fifteen year-old Christopher with Asperger syndrome in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon to the imprisoned five-year-old Jack of Emma Donoghue’s Room. There are other storytellers nearly as young as McEwan’s foetus, such as Muriel Spark’s narrator in the self-explanatory short-story “The First year of my life.” Still more extraordinary are the non-human narrators, such as, for example, the few that are best described as ‘bug-like’, from Kafka’s insect Gregor Samsa in “Metamorphosis,” an inspiration for McEwan’s novel for children The Daydreamer, to the woodworm who narrates the opening story of A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, a novel by McEwan’s friend Julian Barnes. There are additionally those that are not human, but who are also not animal, such as the antique bowl who narrates Tibor Fischer’s The Collector Collector or the self-aware supermarket trolley that narrates Bo Fowler’s Scepticism Inc.
In recent years, McEwan has enjoyed playing with questions of authorship and narration in order to foreground this aspect to fiction but also to highlight its use of imagination and even deception. His recent short story for The New Yorker, “My Purple Scented Novel”, includes a reference to McEwan as the novelist “with the Scottish name and the English attitude.” The story has a literary theft at its heart, as one author photocopies a draft of a fellow writer’s novel and, by publishing first, frames his long-standing friend and far more successful literary rival as a plagiarist. McEwan himself is unhappily accustomed to occasional accusations of passing off the words of others as his own, particularly with respect to his best-known novel, Atonement. It is arguably ironic therefore that Atonement itself purports to be a conventionally narrated third-person novel until its ending implies it to be the work of one of its characters, an author remembering her own catastrophic childhood mistake of making up a story about other people. A more recent literary spy-novel by McEwan, Sweet Tooth, has one chatty, confidential first-person narrator until its closing pages make it appear to have been chiefly the work of another character, an author whose first fictions have a striking resemblance to those early short stories of McEwan’s. One of which, by the way, is narrated by an ape.
The question of who is telling a story tends to be one we forget as we immerse ourselves in an enjoyable novel, unless the writer forces us to take notice, at which point our enjoyment may diminish. Yet, the characters who influence us most are frequently those narrators, often unreliable, who bring a unique tone and perspective to the telling of the story. These are the best ventriloquist’s voices without whom, to take one example, the Great American novel would not exist, or at least not with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man or To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the story that matters most for many readers, but for an author, especially one such as McEwan, it is equally important who is narrating it; so perhaps it should matter to us too, even if we wish to trust the tale and not the teller, whoever that may be.
Featured image credit: Ian McEwan at the London Book Fair 2017. ActuaLitté, CC BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.