Friday, April 9, 2010

Review: Saturday, by Ian McEwan

It’s hard to write a casual critique of Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday without confronting Irish novelist John Banville’s scathing indictment of the book in his review of it for The New York Times. Banville is arguably most famous for his curt acceptance speech after winning the Booker Prize that same year, in which he quipped, “It is nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize.” One gets the sense that Saturday was exactly the kind of novel he was trying to diss.

So what kind of novel is Saturday? In Banville’s words, it’s “dismally bad”, a series of set pieces crudely assembled “with the subtlety of a child's Erector Set”; he find’s the book’s political discussions “banal”, its cast of characters like cardboard cut outs. He writes, “If [British Prime Minister at the time] Tony Blair … were to appoint a committee to produce a ‘novel for our time,’ the result would surely be something like this.” In other words, for Banville, Saturday is not a work of art.

It is true that, as a novelist, Ian McEwan generally errs on the side of pure clinical technique rather than unfettered artistic expression, and this aesthetic is in obvious display in Saturday. Perhaps Banville’s panning of the book was meant to instigate a discussion about whether novel writing has degenerated into mere craft rather than an attempt to create a lasting work of art. To my mind, that debate is a sucker’s game and one that a book like Saturday is bound to lose. Novels can and should attempt to be both craft and art. That’s a given. It’s also a given that they can fall down in their attempts to be both; in fact, most novels do. But even if they do, they can still be serious and enjoyable novels – novels that instill in us a sublime sense of enrichment, even if it originates from an imperfect technique or expression of art. For my money, this is exactly where Saturday lands.

A little background: the novel is set within a single day – Saturday, February 15, 2003. (A diurnal novel, one might say. The knee-jerk observation is that this is an hommage to Virginia Wolff’s Mrs. Dalloway.) Successful British neurosurgeon Henry Perowne wakes in the early hours of the morning with an aimless sense of dread. He gets up and goes to his window, where he sees a plane with one of its engines on fire streaking across the sky on its way to an emergency landing at Heathrow. With the attacks of 9/11 still fresh in the collective psyche, Perowne wonders if this burning plane is another act of terrorism. He learns only later in the morning that it was in fact a simple mechanical issue, but the incident lingers with him for the remainder of the day. And what a day it will be for Perowne: his young daughter Daisy, a recently published poet, is returning home from Paris after being away for six months, and the Perownes are planning to mark her arrival with a celebratory family dinner party, which will include Henry’s wife Rosalind (a lawyer working for a liberal London newspaper), their 18-year-old son Theo (a buddy blues musician), and Rosalind’s father Grammaticus (also a poet, Daisy’s tempestuous mentor). Henry has a full day planned before the evening party, which includes a game of squash with a colleague, a visit to his senile mother in a nursing home, and a trip to the fishmonger to pick up seafood for the meal that night.

Of course, the big complication in Perowne’s day is the massive demonstration occurring on the streets of London to protest the looming invasion of Iraq. This street protest diverts Perowne onto a secluded street on his way to his squash game, and there he’s involved in what at first seems to be a run-of-the-mill auto accident. Only, the car that crashed into his is occupied by three black hoodlums. A confrontation ensues. The lead ruffian, a street kid named Baxter, throws a punch at Perowne and threatens him. It’s during this altercation that Perowne, ever the observant scientist, diagnoses Baxter on the spot with the early stages of Huntington’s disease. Perowne manages to escape the situation without serious injury by confronting Baxter about his illness. Perowne goes through the rest of his day deeply shaken, not only by the altercation but how it relates to the protest over the Iraq war, the flaming airplane he saw that morning, and the general angst gripping the 21st century. He goes home and begins preparing the meal. Daisy arrives. The two get into an argument over the Iraq War. Theo and Grammaticus eventually arrive as well. Then the final confrontation begins. Rosalind comes home, only she’s being led by knifepoint into the house by Baxter and Nigel, one of the other hoodlums that Perowne had met earlier in the day. The confrontation results in Grammaticus getting his nose broken and Daisy being forced to strip naked in front of her family and read a poem. The scene ends with Perowne and Theo taking Baxter out by throwing him down a set of stairs, which results in him splitting his head open. In the final irony of the novel, Perowne becomes the neurosurgeon in charge of operating on Baxter to save his life.

Okay. Even people who love this novel would have to admit that it does all sound a bit ridiculous when you describe simply what happens in the book. For me, Saturday raised a number of plausibility issues: Is it conceivable that Perowne could diagnose Baxter’s illness so easily during their street confrontation? Is it all that likely that Perowne and Daisy would get into such a heated debate over Iraq after not seeing each other for six months (despite the hormonal roller coaster she’s on as a result of a hidden pregnancy)? Is it plausible that Baxter and Nigel were really smart enough to find out where Perowne lives? Does it make sense that Nigel simply flees the house at the very climax of the novel? Thinking about these problems, one begins to see why Banville accuses this novel of being crudely assembled.

Yet, there’s a lot more going on in Saturday – something encoded deep inside its narrative, something that Banville may have missed. To my mind, this novel is not about the Iraq War, 9/11 or early 21st century angst. It’s not about tenuous family relationships, the banality of politics, or the moral conundrums that the rich and lucky face when confronted by the poor and hapless. I mean, it’s partly about those things, but not really. Ultimately, this novel is about the double-edged sword of an irreligious existence. It’s about one man coming to realize over the course of a single day both the ecstasy and the anguish of living in a world where God does not exist. In that way, Saturday has more in common with, say, Jim Crace’s brilliant 1999 novel Being Dead than it does with Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses.

Perowne is a man who revels in the joy of an expansive, multifarious world of science; its logic creates him, sustains him; indeed, the immeasurable complexity of the universe is what propels him through life. Yet he finds something hollow at the core of these beliefs and cannot find a way to fill it. This double-edged irreligiosity is there when he sees the flaming plane:

If Perowne were inclined to religious feeling, to supernatural explanations, he could play with the idea hat he’s been summoned; that having awoken in an unusual state of mind, and gone to the window for now reason, he should acknowledge a hidden order, an external intelligence which wants to show or tell him something of significance.

This double-edged irreligiosity is there when has one of his challenging talks with Daisy:

…[A]nd Perowne … said that if he ever go the call [to create a religion], he’d make use of evolution. What better creation myth? … and the unprecedented bonus of this story happening to be demonstrably true.

And this double-edged irreligiosity is there in the most affecting scene of the novel – when Perowne goes to visit his senile mother. Banville is right to point out this is a genuinely gut-wrenching scene, but it’s not clear if he understands why. Within his mother’s illness, Perowne sees a dead end to his faith that there is no conscious being controlling the perfectly scientific universe he loves so much. This anguish is brought to the fore by the various irrationalities he has encountered over the course of the day. He longs to have order, to have a guardian watching over him to make sure that everything, everything in life makes sense. His mother is evidence that there is not, and it breaks his heart. Ever the skilled literary technician, McEwan makes sure that when Perowne’s mother spouts her dementia-driven gibberish, it literally makes no sense, that no connections are made between it and the wider themes of the book. A lesser novelist would have given in to the temptation to do so. This is where the craft and the art of this novel collide, and it is brilliant.

Saturday is a flawed novel in many ways, but it is still an important one. There has yet to be a fully successful novel exploring the trauma of our post-9/11 world – Jonathan Safran Foer failed in his attempt; Don Delillo failed in his attempt – but Saturday comes close. Ian McEwan is both a craftsman and an artist. And this novel deserves our respect.


  1. FYI: John Banville is not a UK novelist, he is an Irish novelist, a substantial difference.

  2. Ack! You're absolutely right. Making the correction now.