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SIGN OF THE TIMES


Saturday (2005) by Ian McEwan



BACK COVER: Saturday, February 15, 2003. Henry Perowne is a contented man - a successful neurosurgeon, the devoted husband of Rosalind and proud father of 2 grown-up children. Unusually, he wakes before dawn, drawn to the window and filled with a growing unease. As he looks out at the night sky he is troubled by the state of the world - the impending war against Iraq, a gathering pessimism since 9/11, and a fear that his city and his happy family life are under threat.

Later, as Perowne makes his way through London streets filled with hundreds of thousands of anti-war protesters, a minor car accident brings him into a confrontation with Baxter, a fidgety, aggressive young man, on the edge of violence. To Perowne's professional eye, there appears to be something profoundly wrong with him. But it is not until Baxter makes a sudden appearance as the Perowne family gathers for a reunion that Henry's earlier fears seem about to be realized.


McEwan on the novel, an excellent interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGIIBlhiXIo


Hasn't every one of us at some point dreamed of writing a 24-hour period novel? Mine would've been a revelation, spot-on contemporary, evoking a large spectrum of emotions, radiating to a host of intertexts, abundant with obvious insider jokes, and incorporating several genres stylistically. If I knew how to write: Saturday.

Saturday is a dissection of one man's private and public in a day: our everyday lives and the universal problematics of being in the Western world at the beginning of the 21st century. The subject matter revolves around the vulnerability of our being and our surroundings in a technologically advanced, complicated world where it is impossible to draw a definitive line between good and bad, and where it is equally impossible to keep control. An intact nuclear family, an ordinary Saturday in contemporary London, an ordinary man's thoughts spiced with his intellect and special expertise (neurosurgery). Amidst the superficial ordinariness, the reader starts to pay attention to everyday commodities and to the actual lifestyle. Might there be anything to question, in terms of morals, ethics, values, our behaviour?

The novel evokes great many thoughts and emotions, even fears, but fear never becomes a conscious, central element despite the many anxieties and threats to life and lifestyle exposed. These threats are generic and uncontrollable, and rise in due order from family dynamics and conflicts, worries of growing old, dementia, the crumbling of tradition, the threat from Baxter the gangster, the misuse of power, a terrorist threat and the conflict of world religions, an imminent fear of war and a fear for the civilization. The private and the public anxieties are soon understood to be increasingly intertwined and interreferential, pointing at a fundamental fear of disintegration.

I was pleasantly intrigued by the chosen method of narration. Henry Perowne, the protagonist, is referred to in the third person, while the viewpoint, detail, emphasis, tempo, horizons and limitations of observation are always Henry's. However, even though we are presented with all the thoughts that are formed in Henry's mind during one Saturday, the reader understands that the thoughts are much too well-formed to actually be all of Henry's invention in that precise instant. Usually, a passing thought flickers, is more or less pre-verbal, and bears no seeming connection to the next; while in Henry's inner monologue, everything is structured into actual, readable text. Even if Henry is a man who supposedly leaves nothing unexamined and strives to control his life, it is ultimately the narrator who completes the flow of consciousness into exactitude.

As an antidote to the fear of disintegration, on the detail level the protagonist's every surrounding has a homely familiarity to us; the home, the car, the gym, the fishmonger's, the nursing home, the operating theatre: we're in the head of Henry Perowne. The novel needs another, and another (...) reading, to free us of its magic and to enable us to pinpoint how exactly this feeling of familiarity is created and so masterfully sustained. In the interview, McEwan talks about 'seduction' and 'enticement', but the method also creates strong bonding to Henry: the reader is always safely there at Henry's shoulder and obediently follows Henry's current line of thought. Despite Henry's obvious faults and blind spots, we are enticed. Henry's atheism, or philosophical materialism, is cozily taken for granted and never questioned in relation to a more religious faith. The narrator puts us, if ultimately nothing else, under Henry's control.

While, in my opinion, many of McEwan's novels tend to grow too sombre and troubling as to be truly enjoyable, I completely fell in love with Saturday. I admire its complexity yet simple, graceful presentation. Among the vastness of its substance matter (medical, political, literary, contemporary, geographical), I also found parallels to Ulysses and other echoes of Joyce. Saturday is probably the best book I've read this year; and also one that I find tremendously difficult to write about without appearing unnecessarily naïve.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
catharinal
Oct. 11th, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC)
The name Perowne suggests to me first Perón the dictator, but as the story unfolds, also the adjective 'prone' in its many meanings (accident-prone; a person lying face down; a person bending forwards).
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