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When Violence Crashes the Party
Ian McEwan’s “Saturday”

Over the summer I picked up Ian McEwan’s beautiful novel Atonement and began a brief spree of Ian McEwan books. The subject of today’s Sunday Reading segment is his most recent novel, last year’s Saturday (Nan Talese/Doubleday, 289 pp.). McEwan tells the story of Henry Perowne, a London neurologist, as he goes through his Saturday routine, from sun up to sundown. The narrative is linear and episodic, meandering through a series of remarkable events, beginning with Henry witnessing a plane on fire, attempting to land. It turns out to be the first but not the last crisis in Perowne’s day. As the news trickles out we learn that it was simply a fire on board a cargo plane, but the initial reporting wonders out loud if terrorism is at play, and it provides a sinister backdrop to a day on which hundreds of thousands of Londoners would march in protest of the coming war in Iraq.
McEwan has remarkable narrative gifts, and the story of Perowne making his daily rounds, while it would seem a rather dull plot on the surface, is compelling.

Henry is a brilliant, accomplished man, with a daughter poet, a blues guitarist son, a lawyer wife, and a celebrated poet for a father-in-law as well. Henry’s thoughts center on all of these people in his family, on their minor disputes that never alter their love for one another. He admires his son’s gift and makes a point of visititing his rehearsal. He has an ongoing dispute with his daughter about the approaching Iraq war. His father in law, who is coming over for dinner, is an eccentric with whom he doesn’t really get along well, and who has been estranged from his poet grandaughter. Henry’s mother is an Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home who can barely remember whether his last visit was five minutes ago or five years.

At one point, Henry has a minor traffic accident and confronts a tough who claims it was Henry’s fault. It’s not quite A Clockwork Orange, but the situation is serious enough. Henry is able to avoid being beaten up by catching the leader, whose name is Baxter, off guard when he accurately guesses his diagnosis of a nervous, degenerative disorder, and privately offers some hope of new treatments to the man. He drives off, but the men arrive unannounced later, at Henry’s home, to terrorize Henry and his family.

Like any good work of literature, the book can be read on several levels. In one sense, the novel reads as a reflection on violence and justice. Henry is engaged throughout the novel in a mental dialogue with his daughter about the upcoming Iraq war. The violence of nations is a backdrop to the violence Henry experiences first hand—first he outsmarts Baxter, only to find him later at his home with his gang. The novel also has a fascinating sequence in which Henry plays squash with his regular partner. Henry’s interior monologue makes it clear that, while the men will leave still friends, there is violence in their minds as they battle for supremacy. McEwan shows us that violence can be a visceral response to conflict, or an intellectual one. Henry voices at times the neo-con case for war, arguing that Saddam is an evil force in the world that needs to be removed. Meanwhile, his daughter takes the anti-war stance, creating a dialectic in the novel that becomes all the more ironic by its publication date, and by the fact that Henry, the advocate of preëmptive military action, seems paralyzed by how to respond to the impending violence taking place in his own home.

As a narrative that follows the inner workings of Henry’s mind, McEwan tries to imitate the mental processes of a man, but the pathology of the brain is a running theme in the novel as well. Besides Henry’s mother, who has lost her mental faculties, we also have Baxter, a psychopath who is a subject for Henry’s surgical touch. The novel has a running medical theme, but it is also clear that the workings of the heart—our fears, hopes, dreams, motivations, our impulse to art—are all subjects of Henry’s mental meanderings, and outside the scope of his medical knowledge. For all his brilliance, he can’t quite figure out his own son and daughter, or his father in law, or, at times, himself.

McEwan seems fascinated by the human response to severe psychic/emotional trauma. His brilliant novel, Atonement, deals with the false accusation of a rape; Black Dogs is a strange but compelling novel that deals with a woman’s traumatic encounter with two wild dogs. Over and over again his novels seem to move toward some great trauma, and then back into some sort of strained normalcy. In this exploration of the human mind McEwan seems to want to discover what it is that allows us to overcome these traumas, what helps us to persevere and regain some beauty in our lives. It’s this attempt to rise above the pain of life that makes his work beautiful and inspiring.

Originally published at Ohdave's Into My Own. See also Ohdave's review of Jonathan Kozol's "Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America."

The photograph is from the British edition of "Saturday."

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