Review: Saturday by Ian McEwan

It seems that for every great social cataclysm, there is, historically speaking, great literature. Perhaps there is some visceral, some instinctual need among readers and writers alike to bring the events witnessed back from their incomprehensible magnitude to the scale of human consciousness. Perhaps there is that need, in the wake of any major tragedy. Of course it has been more than a decade now since the Twin Towers fell and hence perhaps still too early to start looking for the author that will join the ranks of Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller, and those other great guardians of our historical memory. But if any novelist has succeeded in lending clarity to the unlikely movements of the mind in the face of disaster, it is Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday.

Saturday is not, however, a 9/11 novel. You do not hear the stories of those who happened to be roaming near the World Trade Center that fateful day, nor do you see, yet again, images of skyscrapers collapsing into rubble. In fact, the novel takes place over a year later and a whole ocean away from the streets of New York. Set within the context of a single day, the novel tells the story of Henry Perowne, a London-based neurosurgeon, going about his regular life on what should be an ordinary day, or so he expects.

Saturday is a closely circumscribed novel, a detailed “day in the life.” The life is London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne’s, the weekend day – away from work – not quite typical or everyday. The Saturday is 15 February, 2003, the day on which hundreds of thousands would march in the capital in protest against the proposed war against Iraq, the teeming masses a constant backdrop (though always kept at some distance, whether on television or on the streets). Henry’s day is one largely of simple routine and leisurely errands, scheduled to culminate in the evening with a family get-together at dinner.

Henry’s daughter, Daisy, is about to have her first book of poetry published, and is coming home for the first time in six months – the longest she’s ever been away. Theo, the son, who abandoned school and has found fulfilment as a blues musician, still lives at home; like Daisy he gets along very well with his father. Henry is happily married too, to Rosalind, a lawyer for a newspaper (constantly trying “to steer her newspaper away from the courts”) – who has the annoyance of an injunction to fight this Saturday. The final guest expected for dinner is Rosalind’s father, John Grammaticus, himself a well-known poet, living in France – the one possibly disruptive presence, a strong personality who hasn’t quite mended a rift with Daisy.

Henry isn’t much of a reader, but Daisy has been trying to educate him, making up reading lists for him. He still doesn’t quite get it, but for the most part he’s willing to try. But some of the books she suggests – the “irksome confections” of the magical realist school – are too much for him to take:

…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.

He pleads with his daughter: “No more magic midget drummers.” Ian McEwan is, of course, not known for his magic midget drummers or similar flights of fancy; it’s not magical but clinical realism he offers, and in Saturday, built entirely around a neurosurgeon, McEwan can indulge himself to his heart’s (and mind-s – though I am tempted to say: cerebrum’s – ) content.

And indulge he does, carefully constructing his novel around what happens to Henry on that Saturday. From the leftover workweek (it lingers into the weekend) to the usual Saturday routine (a squash game, a visit to his mother, who has, perhaps too predictably, almost entirely lost her mind) as well as the demands of this particular day (shopping, cooking, going to hear Theo and his band rehearse), McEwan slowly and carefully describes what Henry does and thinks, and what happens to and around him. Necessary background – how he met Rosalind, his relationship with his father-in-law and with his children, some work-detail – is woven in, not quite effortlessly, but easily enough. Bit by bit the character-portrait is built up. But even McEwan isn’t satisfied simply with the everyday, and setting it on a day with such a significant backdrop – the march, and the world-events behind it – would make it hard to completely keep the world at bay in any case.

What makes Saturday such a compelling portrait of post-9/11 urban existence is the way McEwan manages to weave the current events unraveling around Henry Perowne into the banal routines of his day and, even more deftly, into the very texture of his mind. What happened on 9/11, as McEwan shows, has engrained itself subtly but deeply in our basic faculties of perception. Even as Perowne lies in bed nestling against his wife, his thoughts can wander “from the erotic to Saddam.” The ever-present flickerings of the television and the presence, on this particular Saturday, of a massive anti-war march trigger radiating memories and speculations about politics, about war, about the what’s-really-going-on at the highest levels of government. And how could they not? In the very recognizable world that McEwan sets up, it makes perfect sense that your thoughts would be permeated by a vague and implacable sense that the ominous is not out of reach.

It is easy to think, five years after the fact, that all this dread and paranoia is a bit melodramatic. To say that 9/11 was an event of massive proportion with even more massive after-effects is one thing; to say that it has fundamentally shifted the way our consciousness operates on a day-to-day level is another. But this is exactly what McEwan does so well: he highlights the way your consciousness interact with the post-9/11 world by intertwining precise indications of time and place with the experience of the ordinary. Henry, like some of us, has seen the unthinkable, and for that reason there is something eerily familiar in the way even the most mundane pursuits of his day – playing squash, visiting his mother, shopping for fish – hinge upon a lurking suspicion that somehow, somewhere, this life is being threatened. Henry reflects as he and his teenaged son sit silently in front of the news:

The nineties … are looking like an innocent decade, and who would have thought that at the time? Now we breathe a different air. … International terror, security cordons, preparations for war – these represent the steady state, the weather. Emerging into adult consciousness, this is the world he finds.

What McEwan excels at is in the details, the page after page descriptions of what and who Perowne encounters and experiences and remembers, especially the small gestures or specific details, be they a clinical diagnosis or some realization about one of his children. Some scenes go on too long – the squash game, for example – but overall McEwan leads you on quite nicely. Saturday also remains unpredictable: as in life, few things play out exactly as one expects.

Saturday is a well-crafted book, carefully and adeptly written. Tension ripples through it – yet it returns always to calm. It remains focused on a small world, even as unsettling events and figures, small and large, threaten to intrude on it. The central character’s world is a small, fixed one, where he is able to maintain control – even, still, on this Saturday – but this is a day that reminds him that it won’t always be this way.

   A strange mix of ambition and restraint, I found Saturday neither entirely satisfactory nor great, but in its relentless focus on “the actual, not the magical” it is an interesting and largely penetrating work. Yes, I was quite disappointed that there wasn’t more action to it, but there’s something to be said for McEwan’s reserved, relaxed, and subtle approach – something “magical” that McEwan seems to be the best in doing.

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