by Jeanette Winterson
ISBN: 0676976859

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A Review of: Saturday
by Matt Sturrock

Even among the top-tiered English-language novelists, Ian McEwan holds a privileged spot. His books have attracted the consistently large readership that, say, the beautiful but remote mandarinisms of John Banville and Don DeLillo have not. He's been much more productive than careful wordsmith Marilynne Robinson and avoided the missteps of the more creatively incautious Martin Amis. In fact, his past writing has been almost critically unimpeachable, and among members of his generation, perhaps only J.M. Coetzee and Peter Carey have been the beneficiaries of equal award-committee largesse. (Indeed, McEwan was recently nominated for the newly created bi-annual Man Booker International Prize, prodded into the arena against august, and significantly older, personages like John Updike, Muriel Spark, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Margaret Atwood.) His body of work, then, compares favourably with that of virtually any living writer. But how do his individual works fare in comparison with one another?
Saturday revisits the territory he began exploring in his earlier novels, The Comfort of Strangers and Enduring Love where, once again, a happy couple's agreeable routine is horribly disrupted by the predations of an obsessive sociopath. The story is situated in London, 2003, and opens in the bedroom of Henry Perowne, a prominent neurosurgeon. He is wealthy, enfranchised, married to a formidable corporate lawyer, and the proud father of two precociously successful grown children. Within moments of our meeting him, however, an event occurs that underscores how fragile and beleaguered his, or anyone's, happiness really is. He wakes before dawn-unprovoked by alarm clock, neighbourhood noise, or domestic discord-pads quietly to his window, and surveys the night sky just in time to watch a burning airliner tear low across the horizon. He stands motionless, silent, transfixed, "[c]ulpable in his helplessness," watching "death on a large scale, but seeing no one die. No blood, no screams, no human figures at all, and into this emptiness, the obliging imagination set free." Later, as the lurid and suggestive night gives way to the lucid day, Perowne learns that his "set free" imagination has roamed a little too far and wide. What he witnessed was "simple, secular mechanical failure," and not, as he had feared, the final phase of some jihadist attack on the capital. Nevertheless, the tone has been set. That one crisis has been averted leaves us all the more certain that another is coalescing around Perowne as he carries on with his morning. Routine errands take on grand and even sinister potential. A drive to his regular weekend squash game forces him to navigate the protesters marching against the impending invasion of Iraq-and to confront his own uncomfortable thoughts on terrorism, tyranny, and the exercise of military power. And then, as a physical reminder of life's more Hobbesian aspects, fate quickly sees him embroiled in an "urban drama" of his own. He has a minor car accident with three toughs in a BMW where, he knows, in the assignment of blame and swapping of insurance details, "[s]omeone is going to have to impose his will and win, and the other is going to give way." There is more. Perowne's squash game itself transmogrifies into an unnecessarily bitter, attritional struggle- every parry, feint, lunge, and stab is described over 14 laborious pages-which poisons his friendship with a co-worker. A visit with his elderly and senile mother in a nursing home is largely spent listening to her confused rants, her "shadowy disputes and grievances." Even the shopping and cooking he does later in the afternoon is done in anticipation of a family dinner that will undoubtedly invite heated arguments from his daughter and cold condescension from his father-in-law. But as we all know by now, the narrative linchpin is Perowne's earlier automotive mishap and its ensuing confrontation. It's always surprising to encounter perceptive writing about violent stand-offs in literary fiction. Reliable descriptions of the physical blows are easy enough, extrapolated by the working author from any number of remembered televised spectacles. But when the psychology behind the stand-off has, as it does here, an authentic first-hand feel to it, the reader begins to wonder. How, exactly, does McEwan know that in these encounters, "there are rules as elaborate as the politesse of the Versailles court?" That fussy archaisms may slip into the more educated man's speech when he decides not "to pretend to the language of the street?" That a "kick is less intimate, less involving than a punch, and one kick never quite seems enough?" (Martin Amis is good with these sequences, too, having astutely written that "violence is an ancient category error-except to the violent," and that success in these contests "is endocrinological: a question of gland-management." All of which begs the worrying question: where are these gentle men-of-letters doing their streetfighting?) In Perowne's case, the merciless roadside thrashing he seems destined for is aborted. Seconds before he is pounded to the pavement by an angry torrent of limbs, he notices in one of his antagonists the early symptoms of a terminal neurological disease. To this man, Baxter, he hastily asserts his credentials and falsely claims access to a new medical treatment-enough to confuse Baxter's unknowing henchman, temporarily beguile Baxter, and facilitate an escape. But instead of feeling elated, triumphant at this trauma-free outcome, he's troubled by the ethical consequences of his deceit. The reader, meanwhile, is troubled for more pressing reasons, knowing that a vengeful Baxter will return before Perowne's Saturday is through. In McEwan's earlier books, we're fed a surfeit of morbid detail about the pathologies of the given tormentors. In The Comfort of Strangers, the murderer's behaviours are described at length by his battered but strangely complaisant wife; in Enduring Love, the stalker's emotional disorder is exposed through a series of increasingly threatening love letters. Much of the books' tension owes to the languid and skeptical responses of the protagonists; they continue to deny the full horror of what they're confronting while the reader moans warnings at the page. By contrast, having chosen, in Saturday, to limit the timeline to 24 hours, McEwan has denied us that gradual aggregation of wormy, sickening detail. Baxter's condition, his vulnerabilities and unhappy fate, are instantly made known to us through a clinician's omniscient glance. And by endeavouring to depict people in this post 9/11 world-one where western psyches have been recalibrated to anticipate random violence-McEwan has created subjects who are perhaps too vigilant, decisive, and capable to play the victims we need them to be. The wash of fear we've gladly suffered before has here been diluted. But we don't read McEwan only to seek out dark thrills. As always, there's the pleasure to be found in his remarkably concise and accurate prose; there is, as well, the pleasure of meeting the mind-slightly disguised-of an intelligent author who has accumulated a vast store of observations that he renders to unsettling effect. Thus Perowne, a "realist" and self-described "professional reductionist," looks out at London and "thinks the city is a success .. . . millions teeming around the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries, as though around a coral reef . . ." He watches two nurses coming off shift, and sees them "pass through the night, hot little biological engines with bipedal skills suited to any terrain, endowed with innumerable branching neural networks sunk deep in a knob of bone casing . . ." He performs brain surgery, and marvels "that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre." Whatever dissatisfactions I might have felt with Saturday's plot were speedily borne away by my delight in passages such as these.
There's a point in the book when Perowne opines "that fiction is too humanly flawed, too sprawling and hit-and-miss to inspire uncomplicated wonder at the magnificence of human ingenuity . . ." Maybe so. But of all the writers currently at work, McEwan stands with very few others as one who can, at least, inspire more complexly formed feelings of deep admiration. Given the impoverished responses most of our entertainments drag out of us-typically boredom or a vague sense of insult-shouldn't that be enough?

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