Illustration by Curt CrawshawWith the runaway success of 2001’s Atonement on his résumé, not
to mention 1998’s Booker Prize winner, Amsterdam, Ian McEwan has now officially
been installed as Britain’s King of Fiction. Former rivals, such as Martin Amis
and Salman Rushdie, have slipped, while Julian Barnes is perhaps too much of a
Francophile to be allowed on the throne. Which leaves the man of the moment, and
his new novel, Saturday. Like Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway,
Seize the Day
, A Single Man and other venerable modern classics, the
story takes place over the course of a day. In this case, it is February 15, 2003,
when massive demonstrations against the looming war in Iraq were held in cities
all over the world. Saturday is written in the present tense, which suggests
urgency, but in fact the overall sensation is of time being slowed to a crawl
and of action almost endlessly postponed — a prolonged narrative tease.
Early in the morning, prosperous, happily married London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne wakes up from his bed, where his lawyer wife Rosalind sleeps on, and looks out the window. There he sees a burning passenger jet “moving slowly, majestically even,” across the sky in obvious mechanical distress. A portent? An act of terror? After lengthy ruminations on this and other subjects, as well as a backward glance at his previous week in the operating room, Perowne heads downstairs to the kitchen, where he finds his son, Theo, who hasn’t gone to bed yet. Theo is a promising blues musician, while Perowne’s daughter, Daisy, due back later in the day from Paris, is a poet whose first book is about to be published. Perowne is mildly but pleasantly perplexed that a man as literal-minded as himself should have fathered two young artistes. Furthermore, his father-in-law, John Grammaticus, is one of Britain’s best-known poets. Perowne is way too busy to do much reading, and treats literature’s claims to importance (he likes William James’ prose better than Henry’s) with skepticism. Why invent when reality is so pressing? Why tell “adult fairy tales” when there is so much to learn about the here-and-now? One of McEwan’s aims in Saturday is to provide a compelling and dramatic answer to that question. The burning passenger jet turns out to be a cargo plane which lands safely at Heathrow. There is no terrorist connection, no carnage. In the meantime, the mother of all anti-war demonstrations that will soon smother central London is starting to assemble, and Perowne has a squash game to play against Jay Strauss, an American anesthesiologist, co-worker and friend. Strauss is pro-war, and given all the talk of the neocon American followers of the philosopher Leo Strauss in the anti-war British press, one is tempted to think that McEwan might be having a bit of fun with the name. Perowne is skeptical of the anti-war position, largely because one of his former patients is an Iraqi who was tortured by Saddam Hussein’s regime. His thoughts on the marchers are less Guardian than Daily Telegraph. (“ ‘Not In My Name’ goes past a dozen times. Its cloying self-regard suggests a bright new world of protest, with the fussy consumers of shampoos and soft drinks demanding to feel good, or nice.”) The novel’s first real dramatic happening comes not a moment too soon en route to the squash match. Perowne is permitted to take a shortcut through a side street officially closed off to traffic by a policeman who wears “a pursed, tolerant smile that suggests he himself would have bombed Iraq long ago.” Then in the side street itself, he gets into a minor collision with a car driven by three gangsters who aren’t very keen on the demonstrators either. “Horrible rabble. Sponging off the country they hate,” says Baxter, the diminutive head gangster. (Criminals tend to be patriotic.) So here is Perowne, suddenly isolated, forced to evacuate his brand-new Mercedes S500 to inspect the damage to its side, far from the police and the marchers, at the mercy of a smalltime hoodlum — a Saddam Hussein of the back alleys. Except this particular tyrant has the shakes. Even as he threatens Perowne, and gives him a swift punch to the sternum, Baxter can’t escape the surgeon’s clinical eye. Something is seriously wrong with Baxter on a neurological level — his hands are trembling, his mood swings wildly, he can’t move his eyes properly. Right from the start of the book, McEwan has been at pains to fully inhabit his surgeon-protagonist, to adopt his technical vocabulary, to see the world as a man who habitually cuts open people’s skulls and pokes around inside might see it, and here is the first big payoff. Baxter has a fatal neurological disease. Perowne humiliates him by diagnosing the condition in front of his thug friends, who of course don’t know a thing about it. As a result, he escapes without further violence — Baxter lets him go — but at what price? The trouble with all this is that Perowne’s behavior seems improbably serene, while Baxter, a colorful slice of street-level brashness in an otherwise over-refined piece of fiction, has little life beyond Perowne’s diagnosis. By throwing around medicalese like “reduced levels of GABA” and “binding sites on striatal neurons,” McEwan shows off his research while disguising the fact that his criminal is a rather meager creation. As in the case of the burning cargo plane and the encounter with Baxter, the squash match edges toward an explosion and then slowly fizzles out. An argument erupts between Perowne and Strauss, but both men back off at the last minute. Likewise, when Perowne’s poet-daughter (who is fiercely anti-war) arrives from Paris, she and her father immediately get into an unexpectedly heated argument over Iraq — but manage to simmer down before feelings get hurt. Throughout Saturday, McEwan promises more excitement than he delivers, while providing just enough sharp insights and observations to keep a reasonably patient reader turning the pages. McEwan’s real aim is to write about a decent contemporary man. Perowne does useful work, loves his wife and children, thinks interesting thoughts. But his comfortable position in society makes his situation relatively frictionless. Eventually McEwan delivers some real theatrics when Baxter follows Perowne home with two of his fellow criminals, and the violence that has been threatening to break out since page one finally erupts. It ends with extreme improbability when the recital of a 19th-century poem (Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”) utterly disarms Baxter, who is almost reduced to tears. This, of course, is McEwan’s answer to Perowne’s doubts about art’s utility. Saturday has many shrewd things to say about love, work, marriage, medicine, poetry, and how children do and do not turn out to resemble their parents. The scenes in which McEwan describes Perowne operating are particularly well done, and since few readers will know much about brain surgery, inherently fascinating. But too often the novel reads like a series of leisurely, gently fictionalized essays. (“In the ’20s and ’30s, great tracts of agricultural land to the west of London disappeared before an onslaught of high-speed housing development,” begins one section.) Even the anti-war demonstration feels more like a prop than a genuinely engaged part of the novel’s texture. McEwan takes his epigraph from Saul Bellow’s Herzog, and one can only imagine the descriptive riches the American writer would have netted by hitting the streets and peering into the faces of the marchers, not to mention what he would have done with the scene with Baxter. But McEwan writes about the demonstration like an op-ed columnist, like someone who never bothered to leave his study and actually experience it firsthand. It’s there to lend significance and heft to what is otherwise an extremely slender, oddly complacent novel which, like Salman Rushdie’s Fury, emulates Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet with disappointing results. If this is Britain’s King of Fiction, bring on the usurper. Saturday | By IAN McEWAN | Nan A. Talese/Doubleday | 304 pages $26, hardcover

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