Ian McEwan’s Saturday

SaturdayAt the heart of Ian McEwan’s Saturday is successful neurosurgeon and loving husband and father Henry Perowne, whose supremely rational worldview McEwan uses, almost excessively, as a springboard to incorporate into the narrative broader philosophical musings about concepts as varied as free will (or rather the lack thereof), religion, evolution and geopolitics. In the first 50 pages alone, Perowne manages to summarize arguments from the likes of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris and Edward O. Wilson – as rationalist a foursome as any – all prompted by casual, even mundane observations about the world. In his wealth and accomplishments, his healthy family and brand new S-class Mercedes, Perowne is almost a caricature of the well-off Western liberal, aware of his good fortune and slightly ashamed by it. And so McEwan, like any good novelist, creates conflict by injecting disorder, the random and the chaotic, into Perowne’s life, first in the form of a near-fatal plane crash Henry witnesses in the early hours of Saturday morning, and then as a second crash (“crash” quickly becomes a symbolic word), this time as Henry is driving to a weekly squash match.

The second crash brings Henry into contact with Baxter, who is chaos personified. Not only is he, in so many ways, Henry’s opposite (poor background, little formal education), he’s suffering from the early stages of Huntington’s disease, which Henry helpfully informs us makes him susceptible to violent mood swings and poor impulse control and may, we’re asked to ponder, explain his criminality. Worth mentioning, as well, that the novel is set in the early 2000s, after the terrorist attacks of September 11th but prior to the invasion of Iraq, and so there is a kind of claustrophobic atmosphere to the narrative: news reports are constantly updating us about Hans Blix’s search for WMD, anti-war protestors march about the city and seemingly every character is eager to share their opinions regarding the wisdom or folly of war. Calamity, whether in the form of a prolonged invasion or another terrorist attack, seems imminent.

But here McEwan runs into contradictions, though whether or not this is deliberate I honestly cannot say. There’s something ironic about Perowne the rationalist, the man who mocks those who perceive a “hidden order” in the world as suffering from “an excess of the subjective…an inability to contemplate [their] own unimportance,” forgiving his daughter’s quick temper after he learns that she’s pregnant (and therefore hormonal), or eager to forgive Baxter after he commits what most would regard as an unpardonable offense (a home invasion followed by the near rape of Perowne’s daughter) solely because Perowne can trace the causality into Baxter’s misfiring neurons. Is this not an “excess of the subjective” in another form? Perowne (and, therefore, McEwan), seems entirely unable to see the contradiction, and his decision to not hold people accountable for their actions – to pardon Baxter, the knife-wielding home invader, as quickly as he pardons his daughter’s lability – sets a frightful precedent.

Saturday is strongest when these philosophical matters are relegated to the background and Perowne and his family are given center stage, their lives made real by McEwan’s elegant prose and keen eye for detail, or when the musings about the world are divorced from the unsubtle plot and remain content in their ambiguities:

Sick buildings, in use for too long, that only demolition can cure. Cities and states beyond repair. […] A race of extraterrestrial grown-ups is needed to set right the general disorder, then put everyone to bed for an early night. God was once supposed to be a grown-up, but in disputes He childishly took sides. Then sending us an actual child, one of His own – the last thing we needed. A spinning rock already swarming with orphans…

When he gets out of his own way, McEwan is as capable a novelist as any alive today.