Swans Commentary » swans.com September 24, 2007  



On Edge In Middle-Class Heaven
Ian McEwan's Saturday


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



McEwan, Ian: Saturday, Vintage, London, 2005, ISBN 978-0-099-46968-1, ISBN 0-099-46968-5, pp. 282.


(Swans - September 24, 2007)   In 2004 Ian McEwan wrote Saturday, a "consciousness" novel, update of the tradition that gave us James Joyce's Ulysses and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Like his great predecessors, McEwan tells us what passes through the mind of a character during a single day in a specific and limited place. This is central London on Saturday, February 15, 2003. Not that McEwan's edgy temperament and taste for bouts of intense drama haven't altered the recipe. He doesn't preserve his 24 hours in amber like Joyce or cushion them in dreamy musing like Woolf. He's very much of the present whose electronic novelties pretty much rule out a view of the world sub specie aeternitatis.

In 1904, Joyce's Leopold Bloom certainly knew of, say, the Russo-Japanese War raging over Port Arthur. However, it seemed a safe distance away from cozy Dublin. As for Clarissa Dalloway in 1923, she had shrugged off WWI as a bad dream and felt shielded by London's imperial monuments from all except very personal problems. But of Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon whose mind McEwan inventories for us, the author says:

He's feeling the pull, like gravity, of the approaching TV news. It's a condition of the times, this compulsion to hear how it stands with the world, and be joined to the generality, to a community of anxiety. The habit's grown stronger these past two years; a different scale of news value has been set by monstrous and spectacular scenes. The possibility of their recurrence is one thread that binds the days. (Page 176)

This professional man with terrorism on his mind is what Americans called a liberal before they allowed the word to be degraded and now have taken to whisper like an obscenity. Perowne's high guilt quotient contributes in large part to what makes him a good person. He's totally devoted to very skilled, socially useful work. He's also a family man showing the same devotion to his lawyer wife, and young-adult son and daughter. He's of course prosperous and middle class.

On the Saturday in question he sets out early in his silver Mercedes S500 with cream upholstery to meet a colleague for a game of squash. But this is the day of the worldwide anti-war protest. 750,000 demonstrators will turn out in the streets of London, the largest demonstration ever in the British capital. Traffic snarls up. Perowne finds himself in a deserted side street where another car sideswipes his. The three occupants, clearly denizens of the underworld, set about assailing him. His medical eye saves him from more than a bruising blow to his sternum. He recognizes and talks about the symptoms of fatal disease visible in Baxter, the trio's leader. Baxter's confusion at having his misfortune -- Huntington's Disease -- aired allows Perowne to escape.

The hard-driving professional man of fifty won't miss his game of squash for so little. It turns out to be ruthlessly competitive but accompanied by generous thoughts. Had he wrongly exploited his medical knowledge in talking himself out of a mugging? Could he not have done more for Baxter, a clever young man whose viciousness surely came from a deprived upbringing?

So Perowne's busy day -- his day off -- will continue. Driving to an upmarket fishmonger's he sees traces of the demonstration and also Falun Gong people in a silent vigil outside the Chinese Embassy. He learns from his radio that terrorism might explain the burning Russian plane that landed at Heathrow in the morning. He leaves central London briefly to visit his widowed mother in a nursing home. Far gone in dementia, she takes him for someone else and makes no sense. He's ashamed of his happiness when the visit ends and he can climb back into his cream upholstery. In another part of London he stops to hear his son's rehearsal. The boy is a promising blues guitarist, and Perowne's relationship with him untroubled.

Back home, an impressive 19th century house on an elegant square, he begins to cook the fish stew that will be his contribution to the evening's festivities. His wife will be home after a crucial day in court. His father-in-law, a prominent poet, will come on a visit from the South of France and, best of all, his beloved daughter will be home from Paris where she resides and also writes poetry. His son will join them with his guitar. Perowne reflects that he's lucky to be on the warmest of terms with all of them, though his uncontentious relationship with his wife's father results from a truce of sorts.

Yet Perowne remains an uneasy liberal. He feels all too aware of world events that at the same time resist his grasp. They are real and he is real, but something unreal comes between:

Have his anxieties been making a fool of him? .... He suspects he's becoming a dupe, the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder, opinion, speculation and of all the crumbs the authorities let fall. He's a docile citizen, watching Leviathan grow stronger while he creeps under its shadow for protection. .... Does he think he's contributing something, watching news programmes, or lying on his back on the sofa Sunday afternoons, reading more opinion columns of ungrounded certainties, more long articles about what really lies behind this or that development.? (Page 180)

The arrival of Perowne's daughter adds a bitter aftertaste to these thoughts. As loving as his feelings are for his family, he has to admit that of the five people who will sit down to dinner only he has doubts about the antiwar demonstration in course. The young woman is full of enthusiasm for the event and launches into a spirited attack on her father's position. This only hardens in debate, and Perowne realizes they are arguing about more than a putative attack on Iraq. His view was a common one at the time, insisting that the evil Saddam and his villainies must go and that removing him might well shake-up the Middle East for the better. (We are a month before Parliament backs the war, and two before Baghdad falls to U.S. forces.) The young woman's views were just as frequent in Britain then and, finely argued, amount to her "it'll be a mess and even you will wish it never happened." (Page 192)

The dramatic personal events of the evening will undermine Perowne's conviction that was in any case never so assured as he pretended. His willingness to unseat Saddam depended mainly on an Iraqi he treated and whose wounds from regime torture impressed him. At the end of the long day Perowne's squash-player's aggression has withered:

He's weak and ignorant, scared of the way consequences of an action leap away from your control and breed new events, new consequences, until you're led to a place you never dreamed of and would never choose -- a knife at the throat. (Page 277)

That knife belonged to Baxter, who forced his way into the middle-class fortress and threatened Perowne's wife and daughter with abominations. However the good doctor again managed to distract the criminal with talk of Huntington's Disease. They go upstairs to examine non-existent notes on a cure, and Perowne, with the help of his guitarist son's large hands, throws Baxter down the stairs and breaks his head open.

But British liberal guilt is not easily expunged. The son's first question to the police is whether he's committed a crime against Baxter. Perowne himself regrets his deceit about there being a cure. He jumps at the chance to operate on Baxter and manages to save him so that his slow death by neurodegeneration can continue undisturbed in prison.

If we add that the pivotal event of the evening concerns Baxter's enthusiasm for Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach, our account might seem that of a novel given to fantasy. This isn't the case. McEwan renders the rich texture of contemporary life with a master's touch. He recalls Joyce in the way he impregnates the medical sector of his novel with a language distinct from that of the literary sector. Londoners will marvel at the evocation of their city, just as all the inhabitants of our 24-hour-news world will shudder before the truth of how we live now.

This account of a liberal in our times has not gone uncriticized by the British liberal community. Some have found Perowne much too happy a man. He actually gets along well with his family and loves his wife. He took the wrong side in the argument with his daughter. That big house and his silver Mercedes S500 testify against him. (A neurosurgeon of his standing would be a multimillionaire in America.) In former novels McEwan often put forward one or two freak characters and had a special line in perverts. The feeling among the righteous was that the author had sold out.

Recrimination became so nagging that McEwan decided to defend himself in the Guardian of August 18, 2007. He said, "People felt uncomfortable because I painted this exaggerated version of themselves. Henry [Perowne] is really the fat contented western man; they themselves are fat contented western people." He also agreed "you can never underestimate the spite of a certain section of the English middle-class."


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Published September 24, 2007