“Most novel readers,” the critic John Bayley observes, “are less interested in life itself than in its happenings, money-making, love-making, committee-sitting, being young, growing old”—in other words, stories. In all of us there persists the child who longs to snuggle down and draw the covers close and hear a fairy tale, the scarier the better, so long as it ends with the promise that the good people in it will live happily ever after while the bad perish in misery and in pain.
In a fine essay printed in these pages in 1989, Bayley noted how during the Second World War “bus drivers and brigadiers” rediscovered the pleasures of reading Anthony Trollope. “The atmosphere of crisis and boredom in the Battle of Britain made a red-letter day for the classic novelists, offering the comfort and relaxation of a complete and credible alternative world.” Among contemporary novelists, Ian McEwan would have seemed the unlikeliest to take on the role of bedtime storyteller to our own time of “crisis and boredom.” Since the marvelous stories in his early books, First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets, he has been the least consoling chronicler of life’s perils and difficulties. A master of the ironic title, he offered us, in novels such as The Comfort of Strangers and The Innocent, precious little comfort and no innocence at all. Even in the superb pastoral idyll which is the first half of Atonement we are constantly aware of the glint of the knife blade partway out of its sheath.
If we all have a novel in us, nowadays it is likely to be a September 11 novel. It would have seemed that McEwan was one of the few who might profitably bring his out. Surely he would find a form in which to express the lingering horror of that sunlit morning when mass murder came winging out of the blue upon an unsuspecting city. He is a connoisseur of catastrophe, of the sudden irruption of violence and bloodletting into the drawing room or the shopping mall. Indeed, the destruction of the Twin Towers is just the kind of enormity McEwan might have invented as an opening to one of his more chilling tales, although even an imagination as dark as his might have balked at the murderous scale of the attacks.
In fact, McEwan in his recent work has shown a disturbing tendency toward mellowness. It would seem that, like one of the characters in Atonement, he has been “thinking of the nineteenth-century novel. Broad tolerance and the long view, an inconspicuously warm heart and cool judgment….” This is a fairly accurate description of the methods and aims of his latest novel, Saturday, an account of one day in the life of Henry Perowne, a London neurosurgeon and quintessential homme moyen sensuel, decent, hard-working, moderately and at a distance engagé in the politicsof his, and our, time, a fine physician, a uxorious husband, an ideal father. Henry has everything, and as in all good fairy tales, he gets to keep it, after getting rid of the troll who had sought to challenge his right of ownership.
Owning things is important to Perowne, an unashamed beneficiary of the fruits of late capitalism. Few passages catch the flavor of this extraordinary book as well as the one in which, apparently without a trace of authorial irony, Perowne is made to recall an epiphanic moment on a fishing trip when his eye lit on his beloved car, a “Mercedes S500 with cream upholstery”:
Glancing over his shoulder while casting, Henry saw his car a hundred yards away, parked at an angle on a rise of the track, picked out in soft light against a backdrop of birch, flowering heather and thunderous black sky—the realisation of an ad man’s vision—and felt for the first time a gentle, swooning joy of possession. It is, of course, possible, permissible, to love an inanimate object. But this moment was the peak of the affair; since then his feelings have settled into mild, occasional pleasure. The car gives him vague satisfaction when he’s driving it; the rest of the time it rarely crosses his mind. As its makers intended and promised, it’s become part of him.
The novel is set on a specific and momentous day, February 15, 2003, the day when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of London to protest the imminent war on Iraq. Perowne wakes early, some hours before dawn. Standing at the window in his bedroom, he sees an airliner with an engine on fire streaking through the night sky in the direction of Heathrow. Although his mood is euphoric—he is at the top of his career, he loves his wife and still finds her desirable, his house is handsome and secure, and that night there is to be a loving family reunion—Perowne’s thoughts, like the thoughts of all of us in these days and nights, have been straying over the millenarian threats that have arisen against the soft target which is the developed West. But surely, the reader thinks, this potential missile flying over the city is too clumsily obvious a memento mori for a novelist as subtle as McEwan to introduce in his opening pages. In the end, the threat the plane seemed to represent turns out to have been nonexistent: as the day goes on Perowne learns that the aircraft was a Russian cargo plane with only a pilot and copilot aboard, and that it landed safely and the fire was doused. It is briefly suggested that the two men may have been terrorists—there are reports that a copy of the Koran was found in the cockpit—but by midday they are on their way home, innocent of all ill intent.
Going down to the kitchen, Perowne encounters his eighteen-year-old son Theo, a rising blues guitarist, who has come in from a late-night gig. The two are at ease with each other, with no trace of Oedipal or any other kind of conflict between them, a happy circumstance which any father of a teenage son will hardly credit and certainly envy. As so often throughout the book, McEwan seems uneasily to feel the need to justify such familial harmony: “Where’s the adolescent rage, the door-slamming, the muted fury that’s supposed to be Theo’s rite of passage? Is all that feeling sunk in the blues?” Perowne tells of sighting the flaming aircraft, and Theo comes up with an aphorism: “The bigger you think, the crappier it looks,” and follows it with an apologia pro vita sua which we assume, mistakenly, as it turns out, Perowne, or McEwan, will challenge as vapid and self-serving:
When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in—you know, a girl I’ve just met, or this song we’re doing with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto—think small.
It might also be, amazingly, the motto of McEwan’s book.
Perowne’s early-morning wakefulness ends in gentle lovemaking with his wife, who by day is a high-powered libel lawyer working for a liberal London newspaper. Throughout their marriage he has never strayed once, nor has he wished to—“What a stroke of luck, that the woman he loves is also his wife”—and why would he, since she is a paragon, beautiful, clever, sympathetic, and wise. She is also unfailingly fragrant:
Perowne shifts position and nuzzles the back of Rosalind’s head, inhaling the faint tang of perfumed soap mingled with the scent of warm skin and shampooed hair.
Apparently in the purlieus of north London, or at least in McEwan’s fantasy version of them, no one suffers from morning breath, and women long-married wake up every time primed for sex—as the book ends, no one will be surprised to learn, there is another amatory encounter between husband and wife.
Presently Perowne sets off for his weekly game of squash with his anesthetist and friend, Jay Strauss. The streets are clogged with antiwar protesters, some with placards declaring “Not in My Name,” the “cloying self-regard” of which suggests to a skeptical Perowne “a bright new world of protest, with the fussy consumers of shampoos and soft drinks demanding to feel good, or nice,” unlike, we are to suppose, Perowne in his cream-upholstered Merc, and fair Rosalind of the shampooed hair.
We accept Perowne’s “cloying self-regard” in these opening pages on the assumption that something nasty is going to rise up and put a dent in it. And sure enough, as he drives down a deserted street he collides with a car containing his almost-nemesis, one Baxter, and his two henchmen. This encounter, as one might expect, is beautifully described, and is the best thing in the book. Baxter, a small-time crook, is the only rounded character among a cast of pasteboard cutouts, including Perowne himself, and the moment when he gets out of his wounded car and approaches Perowne and instead of attacking him offers him a cigarette is masterful.
The encounter rapidly descends into menace and the possibility of serious violence. However, Perowne has recognized that Baxter is displaying the early symptoms of Huntington’s chorea, a dreadful inherited genetic disorder which will eventually destroy its victim’s mind, and he uses the diagnosis to stay Baxter’s well-practiced fists. Lying, he assures Baxter he can help him with new treatments that have just become available, and while Baxter, who knows how ill he is, considers this straw of hope, Perowne makes his getaway. We know full well, of course, that we have not seen the last of Baxter.
Perowne goes on to his squash game, which he manages to win despite the fright he has endured and the punch in the sternum that Baxter delivered him as preliminary to a serious roughing-up. The game is one in the series of discrete set pieces out of which the book is assembled. The hard-fought match between Perowne and his American-born rival is meant, we assume, to illustrate the competitive, indeed warlike, nature of the human male, and to show us that McEwan is not entirely Mr. Nice Guy. Here, as elsewhere, the author is wearyingly insistent on displaying his technical knowledge and his ability to put that knowledge into good, clean prose. This is the case especially in the medical scenes, of which there are many, too many. In a note of acknowledgment at the end of the book McEwan names the various doctors who shared their expertise with him, including Neil Kitchen, MD, FRCS (SN), whose operating room the author frequented over a period of two years, and the Nabokovianly named Frank T. Vertosick Jr., to whom he is indebted for an account of a transsphenoidal hypophysectomy—yes, there are many big words in this book.
Having thrashed his squash opponent, Perowne returns to the arts of peace, and goes to the market to purchase the ingredients for the fish stew he will cook that evening for the family reunion—the stew, the recipe for which is given, is the most pungent thing in the book—when his daughter Daisy, a poet, will return from a sojourn in Paris to be reconciled with her grandfather, another and very famous poet, rejoicing in the unlikely name of John Grammaticus. This latter personage, with his flowing gray hair and gin dependency, is an unintentionally risible caricature of the Great Man. Some years previously, at his home in France, he had in a drunken fit of temper severely criticized a poem of Daisy’s which had just been awarded the coveted Newdigate Prize, awarded by Oxford University and won by, among others, Matthew Arnold, and grandfather and granddaughter have been estranged ever since.
Daisy arrives with Parisian airs still in her sails, and immediately father and daughter fall into an argument over the coming Iraq war, which Daisy vehemently opposes and which Perowne sort of approves of. This fight seems meant to be a further display of McEwan’s tough-mindedness, but is merely as tedious as any other overheard squabble between youth and age.
For years Daisy has been trying to educate her father in matters literary, but to no avail. His ignorance of literature is frankly incredible. Are we really to believe that an intelligent and attentive man such as Henry Perowne, no matter how keen his scientific bent, would have passed through the English education system without ever having heard of Matthew Arnold, or that any Englishman over fifty would have no acquaintance with the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, if only through Laurence Olivier’s ranting of it in the wartime propaganda film of the play? The awful possibility arises that Perowne’s ignorance may be intended as a running gag; if so, it is the only instance of humor in the book, if humor is the word.
Now Grammaticus appears—“with long belted woollen coat, fedora and cane, head tipped back, his features in profile caught in the cool white light from the lamps in the square”—and the evening can begin. At first the strained relations between Grammaticus and Daisy persist, despite the fact that she has brought with her a proof copy of her first book of poems, squirm-makingly entitled My Saucy Bark, which is dedicated to the old man. The last two family members awaited are Rosalind and Theo. The latter’s arrival is used by McEwan to work one of his storyteller’s tricks. Since by now we are sure that Baxter will again burst on to the scene—his red BMW has been spotted a couple of times shadowing Perowne’s S500—we are on edge to hear him crashing through the undergrowth. Perowne is
reaching for the bottle and checking his father-in-law’s drink when they hear a loud metallic jiggling from the hall, a scream from Daisy, a baritone shout of “Yo!” followed by the thunderous slam of the front door which sends concentric ripples through the poet’s gin; then a soft thud and grunt of bodies colliding.
But it is only Theo arriving home and greeting his sister, for naturally the siblings bear an unblemished love for each other. We must wait a little while longer for Baxter to make his entrance, which he does along with Rosalind.
She meets her husband’s eye.
“Knife,” she says as though to him alone. “He’s got a knife.”
Baxter and his sidekick, the horse-faced Nigel, come swaggering in, and for a while things look very bad indeed. The knife is held to Rosalind’s throat, Grammaticus’s nose is broken—which gives the old buzzard a chance to redeem himself with a show of debonair sang-froid: “‘It’s all right,’ he’s saying in a muffled voice. ‘I’ve broken it before. On some bloody library steps'”—and Daisy is forced by the intruders to strip herself naked, which conveniently reveals to us and to her family the fact that she is “surely almost beginning her second trimester,” as Dad the doctor calmly notes to himself. Baxter and Nigel are duly put off their evil designs, not only by the fact of their intended victim’s pregnancy, but…
At this point the novel descends to a level of bathos that is hard to credit. Baxter, seizing on the proof copy of My Saucy Bark, demands that Daisy read aloud one of her poems. At her grandfather’s urging, however, she merely pretends to read, and instead recites from memory Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the poem which ends with the famous image of a world “where ignorant armies clash by night.” Baxter is so taken with this late-Victorian lament for civilized values, which he believes is Daisy’s own composition, that he forgets all thoughts of rapine and plunder:
…Baxter has broken his silence and is saying excitedly, “You wrote that. You wrote that.”
It’s a statement, not a question. Daisy stares at him, waiting.
He says again, “You wrote that.” And then, hurriedly, “It’s beautiful. You know that, don’t you. It’s beautiful. And you wrote it.”
Even allowing for the fact that Baxter is suffering from a debilitating neural disorder, this is a remarkable response from the kind of thug he is portrayed as being, and it is not meliorated by Perowne’s wondering who this Arnold chap is, and what his second name might be.
And still we are far from done. Perowne again manages to pull a fast one on Baxter, convincing him that he has some offprints from medical journals in his study upstairs detailing the new treatments for Huntington’s that he had spoken of in their morning confrontation. Baxter drives Perowne up the stairs at knifepoint, leaving Nigel to watch the others. Nigel, however, has had enough, and flees through the front door, whereupon young Theo charges upstairs; he and Perowne disarm Baxter and throw him headlong down the stairs, at the foot of which he cracks his skull. At this point, with a sinking heart, one knows for certain that the final set piece of the book is going to take place in an operating room:
Baxter’s unmendable brain, exposed under the bright theatre lights, has remained stainless for several minutes—there’s no sign of any bleeding from the arachnoid granulation.
Perowne nods at Rodney [his assistant]. “It’s looking fine. You can close up.”
After that there is one final, heart-warming twist: Perowne, feeling pangs of guilt for having used his professional knowledge to escape the morning encounter with Baxter, determines to persuade his family, even Rosalind, who had thought her throat would surely be cut, that they should not bring charges against Baxter, but should let him go free to sicken and die, if not in peace, at least not in prison, either. Then it is time for the Perownes, man and wife, to slip back into connubial coziness:
As the sweet sensation spreads through him he hears her say, “Tell me that you’re mine.”
“I’m yours. Entirely yours.”
“Touch my breasts. With your tongue.”
“Rosalind. I want you.”
It happens occasionally that a novelist will lose his sense of artistic proportion, especially when he has done a great deal of research and preparation. I have read all those books, he thinks, I have made all these notes, so how can I possibly go wrong? Or he devises a program, a manifesto, which he believes will carry him free above the demands of mere art—no deskbound scribbler he, no dabbler in dreams, but a man of action, a match for any scientist or soldier. He sets to work, and immediately matters start to go wrong—the thing will not flow, the characters are mulishly stubborn, even the names are not right—but yet he persists, mistaking the frustrations of an unworkable endeavor for the agonies attendant upon the fashioning of a masterpiece. But no immensity of labor will bring to successful birth a novel that was misconceived in the first place.
Something of the kind seems to have happened here. Saturday is a dismayingly bad book. The numerous set pieces—brain operations, squash game, the encounters with Baxter, etc.—are hinged together with the subtlety of a child’s Erector Set. The characters too, for all the nuzzling and cuddling and punching and manhandling in which they are made to indulge, drift in their separate spheres, together but never touching, like the dim stars of a lost galaxy. The politics of the book is banal, of the sort that is to be heard at any middle-class Saturday-night dinner party, before the talk moves on to property prices and recipes for fish stew. There are good things here, for instance the scene when Perowne visits his senile mother in an old-folks’ home, in which the writing is genuinely affecting in its simplicity and empathetic force. Overall, however, Saturday has the feel of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong; if Tony Blair—who makes a fleeting personal appearance in the book, oozing insincerity—were to appoint a committee to produce a “novel for our time,” the result would surely be something like this.
It affords no pleasure to say these things. Ian McEwan is a very good writer; the first half of Atonement alone would ensure him a lasting place in English letters. In this new book, however, he has stumbled badly. This would be of little consequence outside the book-chat columns were it not for the arrogance which Saturday displays. Perowne’s literally unbelievable ignorance of literature allows McEwan to indulge in outbursts of philistinism which, whatever his own opinions, may well be enthusiastically endorsed by large sections of his readership. From Tolstoy and Flaubert to the magic realists—there is no direct mention of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, to which Saturday is an obvious hommage—all the writers he mentions get it in the neck. Consider this passage in which Perowne broods on Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, which Daisy had forced him to read:
What did he grasp, after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so. If, as Daisy said, the genius was in the detail, then he was unmoved. The details were apt and convincing enough, but surely not so very difficult to marshal if you were halfway observant and had the patience to write them all down. These books were the products of steady, workmanlike accumulation.
Is this the higher irony, a little joke against himself and his craft by a contemporary master? Tell that to the readers of The Da Vinci Code. Whatever the passage may be meant to signify, one hopes it is not a claim by the workmanlike McEwan that Saturday can hold a place beside those nineteenth-century masterpieces which Perowne finds so dully prosaic.
Another source of dismay, one for which, admittedly, Ian McEwan cannot be held wholly accountable, is the ecstatic reception which Saturday has received from reviewers and book buyers alike. Are we in the West so shaken in our sense of ourselves and our culture, are we so disablingly terrified in the face of the various fanaticisms which threaten us, that we can allow ourselves to be persuaded and comforted by such a self-satisfied and, in many ways, ridiculous novel as this? Yes, human beings have an unflagging desire for stories, it is one of our more endearing traits. The great Modernists, with eminent exceptions, disdained this desire, as they disdained our longing for a recognizable tune, a pretty landscape, a poem that rhymes. These are legitimate if not particularly noble demands; it is the artist’s duty and task both to respect and to overfulfill them by giving far more than his audience asked for. The post-millennium world is baffling and dangerous, and we are all eager for re-assurance. As T.S. Eliot has it in Gerontion,
Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign!”
Saturday is certainly a sign of the times; it is no wonder.
May 26, 2005