SATURDAY by IAN McEWAN

December 24, 2017 at 7:08 am Leave a comment

Firstly lets state the obvious – McEwen is a genius. His books are so easy to read and yet so complex, both the issues they address, and the complexity of the characters they create. Reading this book is like going to the best university you can imagine. Science, philosophy, politics, ethics, literature, psychology – its all here, seamlessly blended and beautifully presented.

He is a master of his art and i think he knows it. In this book he deliberately takes on two of the biggest names in the literary business – James Joyce and Virginia Wolff. Like their acknowledged classics, Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway respectively, Saturday takes place in one 24 hour span, and is largely comprised of internal mental dialogue. To me the blatant choice to use that form is a declaration – I’m as good as them, put me in that category. And as they say in basketball – it ain’t bragging if you can back it up. He does so in spades.

However, there are a couple of key differences from those books. Some things do happen in this one. Meaning there is a plot of sorts. And it is entirely from the perspective of one character, Henry Perowne.

He is a brain surgeon living London with his lawyer wife, and oddly – his jazz/blues guitarist son. They are expecting his left leaning poet daughter to arrive for dinner that evening. They are a little nervous because Henry’s elderly father in law, is coming. He is also a poet, well known, but drunk and egotistical. Last time he and his granddaughter met they had a major falling out. Perowne is hoping for a reconciliation over dinner.

The plot though is not driven by this family drama. Rather the purpose of these very carefully designed family members seems to be to provide Perowne, and McEwen, with excuses throughout the book for lengthy and erudite debates with himself about the merits of various writers, jazz and blues musicians, politics – especially the Iraq war of 2003, and many other issues. In every case McEwen not only shows off his scholarly grasp of these issues but his gift as a writer to show how Perowne’s positions on all these things are influenced by his personal experiences, and current events in his life and that of his family.

The book manages to blend the personal current events of its main character, with both global current affairs and the history of ideas, in a way i found uniquely insightful. For example at one point Henry is in a traffic jam

“He lowers his window to taste the scene in full, the bovine patience of a jam, the abrasive tang of icy fumes, the thunderous idling machinery in six lanes east and west, the yellow street lights bleaching colour from the body work, the jaunty thud from entertainment systems, and red tail lights stretching way ahead into the city, white headlights pouring out of it.”

This is a remarkable description but what makes it genius is what follows

He tries to see it or feel it in historical terms. This moment in the last decades of the petroleum age when a 19th-century device is brought to final perfection in the early years of the 21st. When the unprecedented wealth of masses at serious play in the unforgiving modern city makes for a sight no previous age can have imagined. Ordinary people. Rivers of light. He wants to make himself see it as Newton might – or his contemporaries Boyle, Hooke Wren Willis. Those clever, curious men of the English enlightenment who for a few years held in their minds nearly all the Worlds science. Surely they would be awed. Mentally he shows it off to them. This is what we’ve done, this is commonplace in or time. All this teeming illumination would be wondrous if only he could see it through their eyes. But he can’t quite trick himself into it. He can’t feel his way past the iron weight of the actual to see beyond the boredom of a traffic tail back, or the delay to which he himself is contributing, or the drab commercial hopes of a parade of shops he’s been stuck beside for 15 minutes. He doesn’t have the lyric gift to see beyond it – he’s a realist, and can never escape. But then, perhaps two poets in the family enough.

To take the most ordinary moment – a traffic jam – and turn it into not only a brief history of ideas but also a piece of self help advice about how to remain positive is impressive enough. But to seamlessly conclude the thought by moving to a very personal reflective moment from the character, that ostensibly tells the reader something about the character, but really tells the reader about themself. That is the height of writing.

And there is much more. A great insight about what it was like as a boy to be raised without a father, which i know to be true. A very prescient description of our attitudes to media coverage of war and terrorism. A hot shower in which Perowne muses that this will be seen in future as the height of western achievement. A walk to his car that covers the history of ideas. It’s all beautifully done and nearly always seems to appear naturally from Perowne as a character, rather than McEwen as the show off author giving us lectures about this and that.

Stop now if you dont want spoilers

But the plot is not driven by Perownes musings or his family concerns. It is his encounter with a petty thug called Baxter following a minor traffic incident that keeps things moving. During the incident Baxter threatens and then punches Perowne. But it turns out Baxter has a rare genetic brain disease that Perowne can diagnose from looking at him. The disease will kill him over a period of some years. Perowne uses this knowledge on Baxter to save himself from getting further beaten up, and get out of the situation, but in the process humiliates Baxter in front of his underlings. Later there is a series of events involving Perowne and his family in which Baxter gets a brain injury and is taken to hospital. The hospital then calls in Perowne to operate on Baxter, not knowing of any background between the two.

Bookgroup had a lengthy discussion about whether it was appropriate for Perowne to operate after the night that he had had, including the trauma of a home invasion and quite a few drinks. Obviously the consensus view was that it was not appropriate. There was another view that this operation was an allegory for Western intervention in a Iraq in the sense that Perowne was intervening in this unknown land, the brain of Baxter, in his attempt to do good in this foreign land.

In hindsight I think this discussion maybe missed the obvious motivation for the operation which was revenge. Effectively by operating skilfully Perowne knowingly condemned Baxter to a dreadful death from his pre-existing condition. This is perhaps the most devastating revenge one could take.

After the bookgroup discussion i felt overlooking this was comparable in many ways to the way we search for complicated, and less objectionable more rational, socio economic causes to explain various political phenomena. Often, simple basic offensive human drives like racism explain these phenomena much more coherently, but less comfortably.

However, at the end of the book Perowne denies he acted out of revenge. He even sets out a plan in his mind to get his family not to press charges so Baxter will end his foreshortened life in hospital not jail. He seems to be thinking he is acting humanely by planning in this way. But in the same stream of internal dialogue he also acknowledges that ‘by saving his life in the operating theatre, Henry has committed Baxter to his torture. Revenge enough’.

Whether you believe Perowne on this and whatever view you take on his other actions and motivations, it is a great tribute to McEwen that he has constructed a scenario that is so rich and complex that it can be read in so many ways.

It is a wonderful book and highly recommended.

For this book group many of us read other McEwen books – everyone raved about them all as we did when we read black dogs and the children act.

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Entry filed under: crime, english, politics, religion.

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