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208 pages, Hardcover
First published September 1, 2016
I'm immersed in abstractions, and only the proliferating relations between them create the illusion of a known world. When I hear ‘blue’, which I've never seen, I imagine some kind of mental event that's fairly close to ‘green’ – which I've never seen. I count myself an innocent, unburdened by allegiances and obligations, a free spirit, despite my meagre living room. No one to contradict or reprimand me, no name or previous address, no religion, no debts, no enemies. My appointment diary, if it existed, notes only my forthcoming birthday. I am, or I was, despite what the geneticists are now saying, a blank slate.
When I hear the friendly drone of passing cars and a slight breeze stirs what I believe are horse chestnut leaves, when a portable radio below me tinnily rasps and a penumbral coral glow, a prolonged tropical dusk, dully illuminates my inland sea and its trillion drifting fragments, then I know that my mother is sunbathing on the balcony outside my father's library.
Not everyone knows what it is to have your father's rival's penis inches from your nose. By this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls. […] On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he'll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence, with the teeming cream of his banality. Then, brain-damaged, I'll think and speak like him. I'll be the son of Claude.
I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I'm begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith's Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling. At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep -- as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn't let that put him off.
So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I'm in, what I'm in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I've no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I'm troubled. I'm hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I'm terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.
Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.I could check online, I suppose, but I suspect there is a story here. Is it a coincidence that, within months of the launch of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which famous authors (so far Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler, and Margaret Atwood) are asked to retell Shakespeare plays in their own words, Ian McEwan (surely the equal of any of them) should come out with his own version of Hamlet, but not part of the series? Was he not asked? Or did he think he would simply do better on his own? Whatever the answer, his novel contains better writing than any of those actually in the series—one might say McEwan's best writing to date, in terms of the brilliance of his handling of words, ideas, and references. In short, an intellectual masterpiece.
I like to share a glass with my mother. You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta. Even before the wine arrives—tonight, a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre—at the sound of a drawn cork, I feel it on my face like the caress of a summer breeze.Hamlet's (he's not actually named) front-row balcony viewpoint on the intercourse between his mother Trudy and his uncle Claude is bizarrely pornographic, and his knowledge of the outside world, gained ostensibly through his mother's addiction to podcasts, rivals that of the baby Stewie Griffin in Family Guy. This is a very funny book—far more so that McEwan's previous satire, Solar —though there were times when I wondered if the author's creation of an all-knowing fetus was simply a device to enable him to pontificate on the state of the world today:
Free speech no longer free, liberal democracy no longer the obvious port of destiny, robots stealing jobs, liberty in close combat with security, socialism in disgrace, capitalism corrupt, destructive and in disgrace, no alternatives in sight.Well, let him pontificate now and then. For the brilliance of McEwan's wordplay, his vast range of reference, and his deftness in conjuring almost subliminal Shakespeare echoes throughout is worth the price of a little preaching. And there are times when he is nothing less than beautiful:
There's pathos in this familiar routine, in the sounds of homely objects touching surfaces. And in the little sigh she makes when she turns or slightly bends our unwieldy form. It's already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence. When she's no longer twenty-eight and pregnant and beautiful, or even free, she won't remember the way she set down the spoon and the sound it made on slate, the frock she wore today, the touch of her sandal's thong between her toes, the summer's warmth, the white noise of the city beyond the house walls, a short burst of birdsong by a closed window. All gone, already.I think it was reading this passage on page 162, four-fifths of the way through, that first convinced me that what I was reading was more than a jeu-d'esprit but an often profound meditation. Up until then, there had been that little matter of the story. For the characters, though sharply drawn, could not be said to be rounded, and how much of Hamlet can you tell with the title character still unborn? But then I realized the freedom McEwan had gained by not writing within the Hogarth requirements. We may know how the play turns out, but there is no need for any of it to be replicated in the novel: there need be no revenge plot, no ghost, Hamlet's father need not even be killed. We can read with suspense, because William Shakespeare has no necessary hold over an independent Ian McEwan. In fact, he does not totally depart from the original story, but by the time things get moving in the last fifty pages or so, he manages to create surprises that make the novel increasingly satisfying, not only for style but also for plot.
Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions.This wonderfully sapient insight springs somewhere in the middle of this book and almost gives away the rationale behind McEwan’s choice of protagonist - a fetus.
I picture a hayloft, off which a hundred-kilo sack of grain is tossed to the granary floor. Then another, and a third. Such are the thuds of my mother’s heart.The musty air that whooshes past him, tell him his mother has opened a window to an overcast sky, and from the soft thuds of her arm muscles, he envisages her to be slowly getting down the stairs. Her night walks, her lovemaking, her alcohol binge, her brave facades, they all find a delightful reflection on the fetus’ world, as if there was a clear mirror that reflected, without dilution, the mother’s acts and thoughts, to the son.
It wasn’t hatred that killed the innocents but faith, that famished ghost, still revered, even in the mildest quarters. Long ago, someone pronounced groundless certainty a virtue. Now, the politest people say it is.At every instance that I contemplated reducing McEwan’s marks for imparting an astoundingly (often unbelievably) fecund tongue to a 8-months old fetus, he blurred that rationale with a blizzard of hypnotic writing. (He called it later, a liberating act) Of course, they remained far from being all shallow and thus, I remained on course to see where the fetus lands up, literally. The climax, where things could have gone awry, held up good and the multiple inferences sitting hidden in the fetus’ journey assumed another delectable layer of story-telling.