by Ian McEwan
Published by Nan E. Talese
304 pages, 2005
Lost Hinterland Sprint
Reviewed by Edward Champion
The book that follows directly behind a successful novel is a first-rate fictionist's millstone. A novelist's enemies, in the guise of one-time peers, bitter book critics or outright lunatics, may be pining for a scabrous takedown. Meanwhile, those who've followed the novelist all along might be sick of all the rampant accolades.
So it takes considerable chutzpah to follow up with something different. Ian McEwan, however, is no stranger to ballsy, visceral writing. In a career that has dealt with incest, disappearing children, stalkers, newspaper scandals and frequent breakdowns of nuclear families, McEwan has stared fearlessly into many overlooked aspects of the human condition, using a working method that involves ruthlessly pruning his text to the bare minimum. The results have involved several masterpieces and few misfires.
What's interesting is that Saturday, McEwan's most recent offering, may be the most plotless of his novels yet. Saturday is concerned with the consciousness of Henry Perowne, an affluent middle-aged neurosurgeon. Saturday describes the events of a single day. The family is flying in for a party. There's a major anti-Iraq protest tying up traffic, serving more as an inconvenience for Perowne than a revelation of the fractious political circumstances around him. And there's a modest car accident the provides the linchpin for the novel's denouement. But this time around, McEwan keeps his plot twists and character revelations to a minimum, throwing in a deus ex machina for good measure. In prioritizing consciousness instead of a series of events, McEwan has made himself more vulnerable to exposing his very few flaws.
As the last name implies, Perowne is very much a solitary man. He lives in a comfortable home overlooking a town square, where he occasionally peers out of his window to speculate on the people wandering outside. He is a passive observer. One might argue that he isn't a particularly lucid one. He keeps to himself, relegating his social life to squash games with co-workers and dreamy morning booty calls with his wife. He's a neurosurgeon close to 50 who barely stirs in the operating theater, concentrating exclusively on the surgery at hand. He complains of other people going "nowhere without a soundtrack," yet insists on Barber's "Adagio for Strings" to be played over and over during the final stages of an operation. With the character so married to his work and so casually misanthropic, Perowne may serve as an apt persona for McEwan himself. In expressing middle age so strenuously, Saturday might serve as a rhetorical novel for whether McEwan believes his work holds any relevance for people under the age of 40. That's an odd idea coming from a novelist who has repeatedly demonstrated his universal relevance.
Other critics have made comparisons between Saturday and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, pointing out that Perowne operates as a male counterpart to Dalloway. Both novels unfold in a single day. Both Dalloway and Perowne observe a plane in the sky. (Dalloway sees a skywriter. Perowne sees a jet on fire, making an emergency landing.) And where Mrs. Dalloway first appeared on a boat in Woolf's debut novel, The Voyage Out, McEwan stages Perowne's consummation with his wife on a ferry.
Instead of Septimus Smith and a car backfiring, there is Perowne dinging a side mirror of a troubled young man named Baxter. Both Septimus and Baxter suffer from mental illness. And, like Mrs. Dalloway, there is also a party near Saturday's conclusion, whereby Perowne's grown children (Theo, a stay-at-home blues guitarist, and Daisy, a soon-to-be-published poet) and Perowne's father, given the fey, self-conscious name of Grammaticus, are assembled to celebrate.
McEwan's prose, like Woolf's, is needlessly comma-centric ("in darkness, under private cover, with another creative, a pale soft tender mammal"), more concerned with Perowne's inner mind than the events that unfold around him. The intent is to present a man who has lost touch with the world in a very particular yet not easily identifiable way, but who can, when galvanized, be an effective and active human. At one point, Perowne uses his medical knowledge to escape a scuffle in the streets (an ethical quandary which later comes back to bite him in the ass). But McEwan retreats from offering specific clues as to how this internal take-charge quality might have developed. Perowne is a man married to his work, but the other bonds that Perowne casually disregards aren't fleshed out. Such is the curse of tying a novel so explicitly to one man's consciousness: the important details that Perowne catastrophically ignores are also ignored in the text. McEwan might have had a better novel had he dared to think outside of Perowne's taut box.
Even in explaining the circumstances of how Perowne met his wife (helping her with a vision problem in a neurological ward, no less), Perowne is a more complicated character than McEwan credit him with. Perowne, for example, owns a Mercedes S 500. He considers himself to be "the owner, the master of his own vehicle" and yet he can't really rev this middle-aged toy, perhaps a bauble to restore his waning masculinity, past fourth gear. During the book's initial confrontation with Baxter, the brain itself is compared to an expensive car in the way that it "can let you down." Baxter himself drives a BMW, also an expensive car. Is there a correlation between these two men? Absolutely. Yet while Perowne's past is muddled with a passive swagger (he's described as being pitiless several times), McEwan shies away from comparing these two, preferring instead to keep Baxter's description confined to Perowne's speculations and their respective identities separate from each other. Perhaps Plutarch would have been a better model than Woolf.
Like his previous novel, Atonement, McEwan is obsessed with capturing nearly every detail that Perowne takes in. Here, McEwan lets loose a motley mix of medical terminology, not exactly something to bust a piata over. But where Atonement used these details to create a mnemonic world of regrets and questionable perspective, Saturday's meticulousness is more scattershot. Why, for example, does McEwan spend so much time chronicling a banal political dialogue between Perowne and his daughter on whether the United Kingdom should get involved with Iraq? Does he want to memorialize the kind of hollow cocktail party banter that shows no sign of abating four years after September 11?
Given the novel's context, one is tempted to view Saturday as a thinly veiled allegory for UK involvement and aging liberal noninvolvement. But allegory along these lines runs the risk of being incompatible with verisimilitude. McEwan's track record as an astute observer is incomparable; one might even say that this quality is indispensable to his strengths as a novelist. So when his character details aren't entirely right, as they are here, it's disheartening to see a potentially buoyant balloon beached on the ground.
Of course, even on a bad day, McEwan is still the master of the telling detail. When the side mirror is dinged, McEwan has one of the men cradle it in his hands like a small child. He describes Baxter as "one of those smokers whose pores exude a perfume." Perowne observes that "You can tell a lot from a person's nails. When a life starts to unravel, they're among the first to go." And McEwan's savage wit is here in spurts, such as when he speculates on how his daughter describes her lovers through her poetry, wondering about "the creep whose tumescence resembles an 'excited water can' approaching a 'peculiar rose.'" At one point, he even channels Bush's malapropisms when he has a character note that "there are rumors on the Internet."
But if Saturday is intended as homage, then what is its purpose? If it is an effort to transpose Mrs. Dalloway's consciousness to the 21st century, why are its specifics so frustratingly oblique? McEwan is too smart a writer to encourage banality for banality's sake. If it is allegory channeled through behavior, then why does McEwan seem content to split the difference?
The whole exercise reminded me of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis, which also involved a talented writer deliberately confining himself to a set time and milieu. (In fact, as a self-contained vehicle to stave off the rabble, Perowne's Mercedes is very similar to Cosmopolis' limo.) Like Cosmopolis, Saturday features beautiful passages and remarkable potential embedded within an unfortunate morass. Some novelists, it seems, are meant to sprint through the hinterland rather than keep their yachts at bay. | May 2005