Saturday, May 11, 2013


Perhaps I am one of the last readers to discover Ian McEwan's Saturday, originally published some eight years ago.  In my defense, the book has been sitting in my reading queue for some time --  the Jonathan Cape paperback edition -- and I finally picked it up and said it was about time I turn to an English novelist and temporarily abandon my preference for American literature, having heard so much praise about McEwan's work. (As a disclaimer, I had not read his best known work, Atonement, before it was made into a movie -- which I also have not seen, hoping to read the book first, but Saturday was already on my shelves by then.)

As I am so late to the McEwan party, it doesn't make sense to try to write a formal book review of the book -- there are so many online.  But a brief summary might be useful.  The protagonist, Henry Perowne is a very successful neurosurgeon, married to Rosalind who is an attorney for a newspaper.  They have two children, both young adults, Daisy, a soon to be a published poet (like her maternal Grandfather) and Theo, a talented blues musician.  All the action of the novel (mostly told as interior monologue) takes place on a Saturday (actually into early Sunday morning).  It begins with Henry's early morning awakening, his watching the square over which his home looms, his thoughts about surgeries, past and future, and then finally noticing a plane, partially in flames, seemingly descending on London or perhaps trying to land at Heathrow.  This is post 9/11, that early morning scene setting the tone for the entire novel, a sense of impending doom.  Other things happen that day -- a mass demonstration protesting the, then, possible invasion of Iraq, a game of squash with Henry's highly competitive colleague, Strauss, for which he is delayed because of the demonstration and also because his Mercedes has had a run in with a BMW, occupied by a bunch of thugs, (the ring leader, Baxter, reminding me a little of a young Edward G. Robinson). Baxter is the catalyst for action later in the novel.  It certainly changes Henry's day, although the novel almost ends as it began, making a full circle. McEwan's writing is in the tradition of Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, with some of the darkness of Joseph Conrad. 

McEwan is as precise in his construction of the novel as is Perowne in the operating theatre, the place Perowne thinks of as "home" as much as the one on Fitzroy Square where he lives with his wife and son (Daisy has already gone, but as part of the plot, is coming home to London that Saturday as her book of poetry is about to be published). 

Interestingly, Henry is juxtaposed to his daughter and her Grandfather, both poets, and to a lesser degree, to his son, Theo, the musician.  He is a surgeon, one who believes in scientific inquiry, and although he appreciates classical music in the operating theatre, and jazz figures such as Bill Evans, Henry is first and foremost a man of science. 

I am going to quote several passages from the novel as they give not only a sense of McEwan's exceptional writing style, but they reveal some of the major themes as well.  I mentioned that the novel unfolds in the shadow of 9/11, beginning with a possible airliner crash, perhaps an accident, or a terrorist act.  McEwan writes about Henry's feelings on air travel: Like most passengers, outwardly subdued by the monotony of air travel, he often lets his thoughts range across the possibilities while sitting, strapped down and docile, in front of a packaged meal. Outside, beyond a wall of thin steel and cheerful creaking plastic, it's minus sixty degrees and forty thousand feet to the ground. Flung across the Atlantic at five hundred feet a second, you submit to the folly because everyone else does. Your fellow passengers are reassured because you and the others around you appear calm....Air travel is a stock market, a trick of mirrored perceptions, a fragile alliance of pooled belief; so long as nerves hold steady and no bombs or wreckers are on board, everybody prospers. When there's failure....[t]he market could plunge.

And what about a deity's role in all of this? And if there are to be deaths, the very god who ordained them will soon be funereally petitioned for comfort. Perowne regards this as a matter for wonder, a human complication beyond the reach of morals. From it there spring, alongside the unreason and slaughter, decent people and good deeds, beautiful cathedrals, mosques, cantatas, poetry. Even the denial of God, he was once amazed and indignant to hear a priest argue, is a spiritual exercise, a form of prayer: it's not easy to escape from the clutches of the believers.

He is constantly debating his daughter and his father in law about the role of literature and poetry in the real world, particularly the literary supernatural that seems to perpetually occupy the best selling lists.  His daughter has given him a "reading list" of novels, but Henry protests: A man who attempts to ease the miseries of failing minds by repairing brains is bound to respect the material world, its limits, and what it can sustain -- consciousness, no less.  It isn't an article of faith with him, he knows it for a quotidian fact, the mind is what the brain, mere matter, performs.  If that's worthy of awe, it also deserves curiosity; the actual, not the magical, should be the challenge.  This reading list persuaded Perowne that the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible.

'No more magic midget drummers,' he pleaded with her by post, after setting out his tirade. 'Please, no more ghosts, angels, satins or metamorphoses. When anything can happen, nothing much matters. It's all kitsch to me.'

'You ninny,' she reproved him on a postcard, 'you Gradgrind. It's literature, not physics!'  They had never conducted one of their frequent arguments by post before. He wrote back: 'Tell that to your Flaubert and Tolstoy. Not a single winged human between them!'

Then there are times McEwan seems to be influenced by social Darwinism reminding me a little of Theodore Dreiser.  Here, Perowne is negotiating his car through the left over rubbish from the march, and he sees a street sweeper and their eyes briefly meet: The whites of the sweeper's eyes are fringed with egg-yellow shading to red along the lids. For a vertiginous moment Henry feels himself bound to the other man, as though on a seesaw with him, pinned to an axis that could tip them into each other's life.....How restful it must once have been, in another age, to be prosperous and believe that an all-knowing supernatural force had allotted people to their stations in life. And not see how the belief served your own prosperity - a form of anosognosia, a useful psychiatric term for a lack of awareness of one's own condition. Now we think we do see, how do things stand? After the ruinous experiments of the lately deceased century, after so much vile behaviour, so many deaths, a queasy agnosticism has settled around these matters of justice and redistributed wealth. No more big ideas. The world must improve, if at all, by tiny steps. People mostly take an existential view - having to sweep the streets for a living looks like simple bad luck. It's not a visionary age. The streets need to be clean. Let the unlucky enlist.

His eye for the common street sweeper is later turned to the fishmonger and McEwan weaves a philosophical observation into his observation: The fishmonger is a polite, studious man who treats his customers as members of an exclusive branch of the landed gentry. He wraps each species of fish in several pages of a newspaper. This is the kind of question Henry liked to put to himself when he was a schoolboy: what are the chances of this particular fish, from that shoal, off that continental shelf ending up in the pages, no, on this page of this copy of the Daily Mirror? Something just short of infinity to one. Similarly, the grains of sand on a beach, arranged just so. The random ordering of the world, the unimaginable odds against any particular condition, still please him.

And then, he turns to humanity in general.  Henry is now stuck in traffic, the late aftermath of the march.  Does he become irate, frustrated by the traffic?  No, he is transported to a breathtaking view from a historical perspective: Dense traffic is heading into the city for Saturday night pleasures just as the first wave of coaches is bringing the marchers out.  During the long crawl towards the lights at Gypsy Corner, he lowers his window to taste the scene in full - the bovine patience of a jam, the abrasive tang of icy fumes, the thunderous idling machinery in six lanes east and west, the yellow street light bleaching colour from the bodywork, the jaunty thud of entertainment systems, and red taillights stretching way ahead into the city, white headlights pouring out of it. He tries to see it, or feel it, in historical terms, this moment in the last decades of the petroleum age, when a nineteenth-century device is brought to final perfection in the early years of the twenty-first; when the unprecedented wealth of masses at serious play in the unforgiving modem city makes for a sight that no previous age can have imagined. Ordinary people! Rivers of light! He wants to make himself see it as Newton might, or his contemporaries, Boyle, Hooke, Wren, Willis - those clever, curious men of the English Enlightenment who for a few years held in their minds nearly all the world's science. Surely, they would be awed. Mentally, he shows it off to them: this is what we've done, this is commonplace in our time. All this teeming illumination would be wondrous if he could only see it through their eyes.

Back in the operating theatre (now late Saturday night), Henry's awe of science, the brain he is operating on, and what does consciousness mean, all converge: He's looking down at a portion of Baxter's brain. He can easily convince himself that it's familiar territory, a kind of homeland, with its low hills and enfolded valleys of the sulci, each with a name and imputed function, as known to him as his own house. Just to the left of the mid-line, running laterally away out of sight under the bone, is the motor strip. Behind it, running parallel, is the sensory strip. So easy to damage, with such terrible, lifelong consequences. How much time he has spent making routes to avoid these areas, like bad neighbourhoods in an American city. And this familiarity numbs him daily to the extent of his ignorance, and of the general ignorance. For all the recent advances, it's still not known how this well-protected one kilogram or so of cells actually encodes information, how it holds experiences, memories, dreams and intentions. He doesn't doubt that in years to come, the coding mechanism will be known, though it might not be in his lifetime. Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain's fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre.  Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious?

One of my favorite, very poignant passages, probably because it touches me very directly, my mother-in-law, uncle, and now our cousin, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, involves Henry's mother, Lily, who he visits (same Saturday!) at the home she is being cared for -- with advance stages of that dreaded disease.  Henry remembers when they had to take her from her home, the very one he grew up in, as she could no longer care for herself and in fact was failing to recognize family members.  He enlists the help of his wife and his children: The family packed up clothes and kitchenware and unwanted ornaments for the charity shops - Henry never realised before how these places lived off the dead. Everything else they stuffed into bin liners and put out for the rubbish collection. They worked in silence, like looters - having the radio on wasn't appropriate. It took a day to dismantle Lily's existence.

They were striking the set of a play, a humble, one-handed domestic drama, without permission from the cast. They started in what she called her sewing room - his old room. She was never coming back, she no longer knew what knitting was, but wrapping up her scores of needles, her thousand patterns, a baby's half-finished yellow shawl, to give them all away to strangers was to banish her from the living. They worked quickly, almost in a frenzy. She's not dead, Henry kept telling himself. But her life, all lives, seemed tenuous when he saw how quickly, with what ease, all the trappings, all the fine details of a lifetime could be packed and scattered, or junked. Objects became junk as soon as they were separated from their owner and their pasts - without her, her old tea cosy was repellent, with its faded farmhouse motif and pale brown stains on cheap fabric, and stuffing that was pathetically thin. As the shelves and drawers emptied, and the boxes and bags filled, he saw that no one owned anything really. It's all rented, or borrowed. Our possessions will outlast us, we'll desert them in the end.

I don't think I've given away any significant plot details that will ruin one's reading of this novel of suspense.  I mentioned earlier that the novel remains in the shadow of 9/11 and it circles back to the beginning at the end.  Henry now thinks what the future might bring, by thinking of what the past was like --as the future might have been seen through the eyes of a physician such as himself, one hundred years ago.  It is a powerful message brilliantly expressed, one of foreboding by McEwan: London, his small part of it, lies wide open, impossible to defend, waiting for its bomb, like a hundred other cities. Rush hour will be a convenient time. It might resemble the Paddington crash - twisted rails, buckled, upraised commuter coaches, stretchers handed out through broken windows, the hospital's Emergency Plan in action. Berlin, Paris, Lisbon. The authorities agree, an attack's inevitable. He lives in different times - because the news-papers say so doesn't mean it isn't true. But from the top of his day, this is a future that's harder to read, a horizon indistinct with possibilities. A hundred years ago, a middle-aged doctor standing at this window in his silk dressing gown, less than two hours before a winter's dawn, might have pondered the new century's future. February 1903. You might envy this Edwardian gent all he didn't yet know. If he had young boys, he could lose them within a dozen years, at the Somme. And what was their body count, Hitler, Stalin, Mao? Fifty million, a hundred? If you described the hell that lay ahead, if you warned him, the good doctor - an affable product of prosperity and decades of peace - would not believe you. Beware the utopianists, zealous men certain of the path to the ideal social order. Here they are again, totalitarians in different form, still scattered and weak, but growing, and angry, and thirsty for another mass killing. A hundred years to resolve. But this may be an indulgence, an idle overblown fantasy, a night-thought about a passing disturbance that time and good sense will settle and rearrange.

My blog entry immediately before this one made note that Saturdays will never be the same without my favorite financial writer who recently passed, Alan Abelson Inevitably I will think of this novel on some future Saturdays as well, hoping that it is not in the context of a "mass killing," but that specter of terrorism hangs heavily.  In his own post 9/11 novel, The Terrorist, John Updike struggled to reconcile the fundamentalist Muslim view of American society and what the future might hold.  Both novels leave one with the ambiguities of an unknown resolution. Both are novels of peerless writing.