By Ian McEwan
If you wanted to make a case for Ian McEwan being the best English author writing today you’d begin by pointing out his consistency. His latest, Saturday, is a tremendous achievement. But then so was Atonement, Amsterdam, and Enduring Love. Like Hemingway in the ’20s, Faulkner in the ’30s and Roth in the ’90s, one gets the sense that he is on a bit of a creative roll.
Saturday is a “day novel”, following a single character from when he wakes up until he goes to sleep. Ulysses was the most famous day novel, but it told the story of Bloom’s day from the inside, his route being a stream of consciousness. McEwan’s world – clinical, detached, intensely moral – doesn’t allow for Joycean special effects. But it has a magic of its own, and a grandeur in its view of life.
The hero – and he is a heroic figure – is Henry Perowne, a London neurosurgeon. On Saturday, February 15, 2003, he gets out of bed early and watches a burning plane fly overhead. The burning plane is a point of contact between the greater world – the fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks and the debate over England’s alliance with the United States in the oncoming invasion of Iraq – and Henry’s personal and professional life. Throughout the day Henry keeps an eye on the news, where the story of the burning plane and the massive protest marches against the invasion of Iraq are the headlines.
In the rest of his day Henry plays squash, visits his mother in a nursing home, goes to hear his musician son jamming, prepares a meal for a family get-together, and, this being an Ian McEwan novel, has an unsettling run-in with some very bad elements that throws his smoothly operating world completely out of order.
The parallel between what goes on in Henry’s day and the political headlines is pretty clear. McEwan’s novels often feature contented, even idyllic, family situations that are suddenly destroyed by sudden intrusions of dark, pathological forces (kidnappers, black dogs, crazy guys with psychotic fatal attractions, rapists). It’s interesting that for McEwan the darkness is rarely a subconscious darkness within, but an external threat to an established sense of normality. Evil is a foreign pathology, not something inherent in the human condition. It falls upon us like a plane out of the sky. And so the Perownes, as functional and bourgeois a family unit as you could imagine, have to endure their own kind of terrorist attack.
The sense of normality, duty and routine is emphasized here because Henry is such a thoroughly reasonable, practical, materialistic man of this world. In a crisis (any crisis, it seems) he is capable of standing outside himself and analyzing the situation at a certain remove. For some readers Henry will be a bit much, but the reason McEwan likes Henry (and characters like him) isn’t because he enjoys sticking it to cold professional types who would never read an Ian McEwan novel, but because his fiction is so moralistic. And morality is all about public norms, the way we ought to behave toward one another. Henry isn’t an Everyman, but maybe the man everyone, at least in their social relations, should want to be.
At the center of most of McEwan’s novels is a moral challenge, and Saturday is no exception. Except that here there are two moral questions that reflect each other: What is the correct response to terrorism? and What is the right thing for Henry to do when faced with a threat to his own family?
McEwan has never been a writer to fall in love with, and Saturday is such an intelligent and perfectly controlled novel you almost forget how different and daring it is. But we shouldn’t take writing of this caliber for granted. McEwan is not a realistic writer but a fabulist, and the world he creates with such precision is like a controlled experiment in moral imagination. But it is so well done you almost don’t realize what a good read it is.
Saturday goes into a lot of detail when it comes to describing someone’s skill: Henry’s ability as a neurosurgeon, squash player and chef, his son’s talent as a musician, his daughter’s poetic gifts, even Baxter’s air of threatening proficiency as a thug. It’s a novel about different kinds of mastery, and it shows McEwan, once again, a master.
Review first published March 26, 2005. From here on, McEwan started going downhill fast.