Saturday by Ian McEwan (Cape, 2005)…
One of the things I find fascinating about McEwan’s work is that he is now regularly hailed as the best contemporary British novelist, yet he betrays none of the traits usually associated with such a title. His prose is not particularly beautiful, there are few poetic turns of phrase, this is not the sort of fine writing designed to catch the eye. Interestingly, I think McEwan recognises this. One of the leading characters in this new book, unusually, is a poet, and at several points he quotes a line or a phrase from her work. But this is not McEwan coming over all poetical, the lines he ascribes to his poet are actually taken from the published work of Craig Raine. But if McEwan’s prose is not lyrical, neither is it that other attention-getter, punchy, the sort of short declarative sentence that seems tough and pacy. Quite the contrary, his sentences regularly ramble on just a little too long and it is often difficult to tell when our focus moves from inside a character’s head to the outside world.
Nor is he what you would call a brilliant storyteller. Plot tends to be of secondary importance in his work, and what there is follows a familiar pattern that is clearly there, for instance, in The Innocent, Enduring Love and Atonement as much as it is here in Saturday. We are introduced to a world of regularity and comfort into which there intrudes something dramatic and irrational which has the effect of weakening our protagonist’s certainties while strengthening their emotional engagement with the world.
Nevertheless, flabby prose and a narrow furrow still somehow seem to conjoin in brilliant literature, and the reason is that no other writer can make us see inside the head of his protagonist so well as McEwan. This is not a form of ventriloquism, he does not, as Eliot might say, ‘do the police in different voices’. His tone is fairly consistent from one book to another, urbane, liberal, learned. But if he does not get inside the voice, he certainly gets behind the eyes. His characters, typically, see the world through a fairly specific set of interests, experiences and obsessions, and he makes us aware of what those interests, experiences and obsessions are by showing us exactly how they affect the view of the world. We are not just watching the same things he sees, we are also watching the process of interpretation, and it is that which lets us know the character to an unusual degree.
In that respect, Henry Perowne is an archetypal McEwan hero. In his late 40s, he is publicly successful (a highly respected neurosurgeon – McEwan goes into the detail of his work in sometimes disturbing detail) but in many ways innocent of the world outside his narrow range of experiences. He is happily married (how unusual in modern literature to have a happy marriage), well off but not overly concerned with the trappings of wealth, living in a big house on one of those central London garden squares. His daughter, whose first book of poetry is just about to come out, is trying to introduce him to great literature, but he just doesn’t get it. He is a materialist who, because of his career, sees everything in terms of the physical workings of the brain.
The novel follows Perowne on one day, which happens to be the day of the big anti-war march. The march rarely impinges on the actual story, but it is never very far from the background and helps to set a moral tone for the story. Perowne himself once treated a prominent Iraqi exile and has learned therefore of Saddam’s tortures, so he feels that a war against Iraq may be a good thing. But he’s not convinced, he has no real political convictions. Unable to sleep, he is standing at his bedroom window in the early hours of the morning when he sees an aircraft in flames flying across London. We learn eventually that it was a fairly routine emergency, but it provides an unsettling start for an unsettling day. Driving across London to play squash with his anaesthetist, he is involved in a minor traffic accident with a car driven by a young thug called Baxter. As Baxter threatens him, he recognises in the thug’s quiverings and staccato movements evidence of a degenerative brain disease, and talking of this helps him offset the danger, but it humiliates Baxter in front of his two bully-boys.
Thoroughly disturbed, Perowne loses a close-fought squash game which turns unexpectedly into a grudge match; he picks up fish which he will cook for dinner; visits his mother who suffers from alzheimer’s disease; and goes to hear his son, a promising blues guitarist, rehearse with his band. All of these provide Perowne with plentiful opportunities to muse upon the world, which he is starting to see from an unexpected angle. Then, as the family gathers for dinner that evening, Baxter bursts in seeking revenge. It is a melodramatic climax to a decidedly undramatic day, but McEwan handles it cooly, the way he always handles such irruptions of the irrational, and somehow makes it work.
As Saturday turns into Sunday and the novel reaches its end, life has started to resume its familiar course, but the world is different. McEwan notes in his acknowledgements that he watched one neurosurgeon at work over a period of two years, so I suspect that the happenstance of the march was something that came fairly late in the life of the novel, but confining the events to that one very specific day works extraordinarily well. I am not sure if this is McEwan’s best novel – I still have great affection for Enduring Love – but it must come pretty close.
First published at Livejournal, 17 February 2005.