In the middle of September I received an email from my publisher with the ominous subject heading, “Fetal Trend.” He wrote that Ian McEwan’s just released novel Nutshell is narrated by a fetus.
Oh, no, I thought. Actually, I probably thought something more like, Oh, fuck. No, no, no! I had been working for over ten years on a novel narrated by fetal twins, and it was due out October 4. Full of dread, I googled.
In the New York Times Book Review, Siddhartha Mukherjee exclaims, “Is there another writer alive who can pull off a narrative line of this sort?” “As an example of point of view, you can look no farther than these gorgeous pages,” writes Mameve Medwed in the Boston Globe. In an interview with McEwan in the Telegraph, Lewis Jones claims, “Nutshell’s narrator may be the youngest in all of literature.”
Okay, hold on. Forget my book (for a second). The brilliant Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes’s 1987 novel Christopher Unborn is narrated by a fetus. And Christopher Unborn, which tells the nine-month story of its fetus in nine chapters, was inspired by Laurence Sterne’s 1759 The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Although Shandy isn’t a fetus, both books begin with detailed descriptions of the narrators’ conceptions, and both are comically, outrageously tangential. And The View From Here by Brian Keith Jackson, 1998, also contains sections written from the point of view of a fetus.
I began receiving emails of condolences. From a writer friend: “I’m very annoyed.” A bookseller wrote, “How much do you hate Ian McEwan right now?” Then a journalist suggested I take a look at David Lodge’s The Year of Henry James. In 2012, Lodge published Author, Author, a novel based on the life of Henry James. Within months of his novel’s release, two other British writers published novels about Henry James. One of the Henry James novels won the Man Booker Prize, another was a runner up. Lodge’s novel was neither of these. Lodge proceeded to write The Year of Henry James about the possible origins of this painful coincidence, as well as other disastrous literary confluences.
Lodge dislodged me from my funk and made room for curiosity: why did McEwan employ a fetal narrator? Why did I? What did this small, insider point of view represent for each of our books? And I wondered how McEwan’s fetal point of view was different or similar to mine. I bought Nutshell and began to read.
Intriguingly, Carlos Fuentes, McEwan, and I all created big, witty, lyrical voices for our tiny narrators. Maybe it has something to do with the watery world that a fetus inhabits—our words taking on the summersaulting quality of an internal water ballet. There’s also a fabulist element to the conceit of a fetal voice that may have inspired our language to take wing. And of course, there’s the absurdity of a fetal narrator—someone that tiny and impossible can’t take herself too seriously.
In my novel, the twin narrators always speak in tandem, reflecting a utopian, pre-individuated, I-contain-multitudes kind of voice:
We are see-through things, our skin as thin as paper. We’re the liquor we swim in, and the liquor passes through us. We twirl and twine and double somersault in love-drunk motion, no telling where one of us ends and the other begins.
McEwan’s narrator also summersaults, but rather than love-drunk, he’s often wine-drunk (second-hand from his boozy mom). When we meet him, McEwan’s narrator is already in the third trimester, a claustrophobic individuated male wearing his mother “like a tight-fitting cap.” Although sometimes he waxes Shakespearean, “But back to my mother, my untrue Trudy, whose apple-flesh arms and breasts and green regard I long for…” Other times he sounds a little like a cranky old man. Maybe that’s because he’s squished in so tight, or maybe because he tells us his knowledge of the world comes from podcasts. He definitely sees himself as made of finer stuff than his mother. “James Joyce’s Ulysses sends her to sleep even as it thrills me.” Like Fuentes, or Sterne before him, McEwan’s fetus loves a tangent. He soliloquizes poshly on the pros and cons of wines, one with a “grassy taste,” another with a “degree of flinty mineral definition.” He decries the state of the world for pages, and even rails against political correctness on university campuses. McEwan admits in the Telegraph interview, “Yeah, he bangs on about the world… I gave him some of my opinions, but not all.” I’m not going to lie, Nutshell’s narrator is a bit of a miniature mansplainer.
If McEwan’s fetus sometimes sounds like an old, upper-class British white guy, my fetuses may sometimes sound like an American Jew who grew up on a commune, and thus a woman with boundary issues. This makes sense, for the position of the fetus is very much like the position of the author. In Mukherjee’s review, she writes that a fetus is “inevitably, part self, part resident alien.” The relationship between authors and their characters also often feels like “part self, part resident alien.” While we writers are often metaphorically “inside” our characters, we also feel, (especially when it’s working) that we are bearing witness to our characters’ actions—just along for the ride, like a magically conscious fetus inside the womb of our work.
So, what does McEwan’s magically conscious fetus represent, in a nutshell? Mukherjee writes that it is “lost messages between fathers and unborn sons.” At the Guardian, Kate Clanchy writes, “a disquisition on the state of English poetry is embedded here, tracing a loving, masculine and conservative line from Donne to Auden to Betjeman and James Fenton.” Nutshell traces the masculine literary line right back to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. McEwan said in the Telegraph interview that, “I had it in mind, in my earliest drafts, that it’s Shakespeare who’s talking, about to be reborn.” McEwan’s fetus is a contemporary Hamlet, witness to the murder plot hatched between his mother and uncle against his father, and like Hamlet, he is deeply ambivalent about everything, and cannot act (not so much because he’s ambivalent, more because he’s a fetus).
Carlos Fuentes’s traces the masculine literary line back to his fetus’s namesake, Christopher Columbus. In Fuentes’s imagination, his male fetus begins life as a sperm, “patiently stored in my father’s pouch… (with) my true grandfathers and great grandfathers.” When he’s ejaculated, he’s “silvery and quick… bearing, oh my god, bearing all that we are.” Thus, a bit disturbingly, Fuentes imagines the maternal contribution—the egg—as the new world, “treasure island,” while the fatherly contribution is “all that we are,” the male, European cultural heritage represented by the spermatozoon Christopher Columbus.
Despite being inside Trudy, McEwan’s fetus identifies with his father, a saintly poet, but one who is emasculated and cuckolded, not “master of his house.” And the fetus, who compares Trudy’s womb to a “meager living room” and the sounds of her body to a “launderette” is also, of course, not “master of his house” either. McEwan’s fetus is desperate to be recognized, claimed, to save and be saved by his poet father, who represents the master of the British house, the “loving, masculine” British literary line.
So, the fetus as a metaphor for a national cultural/literary origin story: for Fuentes, Christopher Columbus, for McEwan, Hamlet, and for me, Mary Rowlandson.
Yes, Mary Rowlandson. You read that right. While Fuentes and McEwan trace their national lineages through a male line straight back to Christopher Columbus and Shakespeare, I envisioned a cultural-literary heritage originating in the colonial mother-writer, Mary Rowlandson.
My main character, Evie, a substitute high school teacher pregnant with twins, is obsessed by the book she’s been assigned to teach, The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. She begins to have vivid dreams about Rowlandson, so that not only is Evie captured by twins; Mary Rowlandson is holding her captive as well.
Mary Rowlandson wrote the first prose book by a woman published in the Americas, about her eleven-week captivity with Algonquin people during the original war on terror, King Philip’s War in 1675. While her husband is away, Mary Rowlandson’s garrison in Lancaster, Massachusetts is attacked. Her life literally goes up in flames on the first page. Rowlandson is led away into the wilderness, and the rest of her book is mostly about what she’s willing to eat to survive, including taking food out of a child’s mouth. She’s a captive of native people, but her own people have violently captured native land, so, Rowlandson represents both a woman who is strong enough to survive a terrible ordeal and colonial rapaciousness.
My main character Evie feels both connected and repelled by Mary Rowlandson because Evie is trying so hard to be a ‘nice girl,’ so hard to deny her own desires and make room for other people: her controlling husband, her neighbors, the twins inside her.
I found it amusing that McEwan’s fetus describes his mother as “slim” even when she’s nine months pregnant (maybe because he can’t see?). My main character, Evie, keeps growing bigger and bigger, taking up more space, her desires threatening to grow out of control and destroy her community. At one point a neighbor describes her as the blob from that old horror movie in which “a creature arrives from outer space and consumes the whole town.”
In What Becomes Us, the relationship of fetus to mother, “part self, part resident alien,” is replicated inside Evie, and also in the complicated relationships between natives and colonists in seventeenth century New England, and in Evie’s waking life in post 9/11 America. We’re still asking the same fraught questions today: who belongs in America? Who is an alien? How do we all live together in one space?
In The Year of Henry James, David Lodge writes that the publication of three Henry James novels at the same time comes primarily from the popularity of “the biographical novel,” but also at least partly out of the rise of “so-called Queer theory”: a re-evaluation of James as a repressed or perhaps not so repressed gay man. Lodge notes that both of the other authors of the James’s novels are gay men. Fuentes published Christopher Unborn on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, a pregnant moment in which to reflect on “all that we are” from inception on. Though fabulist fiction is clearly in vogue now, that doesn’t fully answer the question why fetal narratives in 2016.
Along with the emergence of Black Lives Matter and the rising importance of the Latinx vote, 2016 is also turning out be The Year of The Pussy, a watershed moment in which the first competitive woman candidate for president battles Mr. Grab-Her-Pussy. Pussy Riot’s recent satirical music video, “Straight Outta Vagina,” harnesses the zeitgeist when they rap (to Trump), “Don’t play stupid, don’t play dumb, vaginas where you’re really from.” Perhaps McEwan and I are both writing out of this moment of struggle over where we come from (and thus where we are headed). McEwan’s fetus believes identity politics may mean “the decline of the West in new guise perhaps.” Though about to enter the world through a vagina, he insists that he’s really born out of The Bard’s head. In Nutshell, McEwan concludes that literature creates order and meaning, “the rest is chaos.” For me, however, the origin of American literature/culture in the US is a mother’s description of chaos; a description of the end of an uneasy, complicated co-existence, a violent birth. For all three of us, McEwan, Fuentes, and me, the fetal point of view is deeply resonant, rich with literary possibility, because it describes the freaky paradox of our origins—two people co-existing inside one body. Or in the case of twins, three.