Ian McEwan: Saturday
This book caused a certain amount of controversy when first published. Some said that, frankly, it wasn’t up to his usual standard. Others felt that he was cashing in on the anti-Blair, anti-Iraq War thing. John Banville called it a dismayingly bad book. When the book was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the controversy resurfaced and became a tad ironic when the aforementioned Banville won the prize over McEwan. This, of course, turned the criticism on Banville, with many people saying his book was not worthy. Who said book people can’t be real bitches? So is this book worthy or just McEwan phoning it in?
Maybe this is the time and place to review what the novel is about, by which I mean the (more or less) literary novel. Like the classical symphony, the novel has a very strict structure, which is why (like the classical symphony) so many writers have tried to subvert it (and often succeeded). This site is replete with many excellent novels that do not conform, because there is essentially non-fiction disguised as fiction, because of authorial interjection, no plot or subverted plot, satire and for many other reasons. McEwan, through the dialogue between our hero Henry Perowne (by his own definition a very unliterary person) and his very literary poet-daughter, has a dig at the magic realists. But, for the purposes of this exercise, let’s focus on the (relatively) conventional novel, which has been in place since the late eighteenth century. The are four components that make up the novel. They are not all essential (and many fine novels do not have all four or, as indicated above, deliberately try to subvert one or more of the four). But all literary novelists, whether they know it or not, have to deal with them. (And, yes, Virginia, I am well aware that literary novel (ist) opens up a huge can of worms, which will have to be a discussion for another time.) So here are the four components:
The plot. If you hit Refresh on the homepage of this site, you will change what quotation shows. Eventually, you will get to a succinct three word quotation from Edna O’Brien – Fuck the plot. (Of course, if you are one of those anal-retentives who have been hitting the F5 button a hundred or more times to see all the quotations, you may also have come across Doris Lessing‘s There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be. and Somerset Maugham’s There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. Both are right but also terribly wrong.) Despite O’Brien, the plot is usually quite important, not just because we all like a good story, and trying to guess what is going to happen and a nice little twist to keep us amused, but also, more particularly, to hang the rest on. McEwan has a rather simplistic plot – family reunion, bad guys attacking the good guys – but, as McEwan readily recognises, this works very well for his purposes.
Character (s). Obviously novels need characters. The secret to a good novel is, generally, to have a well-rounded (i.e. not one-dimensional) main character and, ideally, a few well-rounded secondary characters. (That’s also the secret for a good sit-com but that is a topic for another website.) McEwan does this pretty well. Our hero is Henry Perowne, a neurologist, self-confessed literary ignoramus, father, husband, son-in-law, hard worker, decent human being, fish stew cook and, like many of us, more concerned with the world he can see than the world out there. McEwan’s skill is to have given us a full and convincing portrait of Henry by around 4.30 a.m. of the Saturday on which the book is set, but also to have given us a good view of four of the major secondary characters, namely his wife, Rosalind, a lawyer for a newspaper and asleep in bed while we learn about her; their son, Theo, aspiring blues guitarist and whom we meet in the flesh; their daughter, Daisy, about-to-be-published poet and clearly the apple of her father’s eye and who is arriving from Paris later that day and his father-in-law, John Grammaticus, alcoholic, cantankerous, successful poet, who is also to arrive that afternoon. While we cannot fault McEwan on Henry, John Grammaticus is too much of a stereotype of the drunken elder statesman poet (think Kingsley Amis, for example). I’ll come to the others later. However, Henry, though he is recognisable in many respects (i.e. like other middle-aged white successful Englishmen), McEwan is at great pains to show him as an individual, with his own worries and quirks. And it clearly works, whatever Banville may think. Let me just mention another character, Jay, Henry’s anesthiologist and squash partner, who is American. In the days of George W Bush and Homer Simpson, it is probably difficult for a European to portray an American in any way other than as a stereotype. The brash, pushy, aggressive, competitive type but also someone who is at more ease in dealing with people is how Europeans see Americans and how McEwan sees Jay. Of course, not all Americans are like that but many of the ones Europeans come across, either in the flesh or, more likely, on TV, are, so Jay ends up as a stereotype. In a novel with the Iraq War as a background, a mild-mannered, shy, Henry Jamesian American might have been out of place.
Details. Aah yes, the details are what distinguish the good conventional novel from the not so good. Dickens and Balzac, for example, may have not always succeeded at the character level – too many stereotypes – but they certainly gave us the details, often too much. McEwan is very, very good at the details, perhaps too good, as though he were really trying hard to put them in (What detail should I add here? you can hear him thinking). But the little touches he uses, whether it is Henry’s fish stew or the almost obsessive details of the neurosurgery, he knows, as all good novelists know, that the details are what make the character, give a well-rounded portrait, distinguish the setting and essentially are the voice of the novelist.
The ideas. The novel of ideas has generally been deprecated, particularly in the post-modern world but, in fact, most good novels do have ideas, whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not (just as they also use symbols whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not, also a topic for another time.) This does not mean that the novel has to be a weighty tome with lots of learned people sitting around discussing the meaning of life. It does mean that we the readers will learn something about life and the world from reading the book (even if it is something we already know or is something very mundane). In this book, McEwan gives us various ways of learning. The description of the neurosurgical procedures, mentioned above, is a case in point. We could, of course, have just read a book about neurosurgery or spoken (as McEwan seems to have done) to a neurosurgeon to glean this information. Of course, unless we needed to do so, we would not have done so. Same about blues music. The second way is of course dialogue. There are two major themes up for discussion here. The first is the literary dialogue, primarily between Daisy Perowne and her grandfather, John Grammaticus which, amongst other things, mocks magic realism and tells us as much about poetry as we have already learned about neurosurgery. Overdone, maybe, for if we had wanted an exegesis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 80, we probably would not have looked into a 21st century English novel for that purpose. The second and maybe key discussion is around the then impending Iraq War. Henry, who, as we have seen, reacts mainly to what he can see, has taken his views on the war from a colleague, an Iraqi, who has been the victim of torture in Iraq and who believes Saddam Hussein and his regime must be destroyed at all costs. Henry believes that stopping the torture of people like his colleague and removing the terror of Hussein is worth it. He also is prepared – naively (or stupidly) as we now know – that the US and UK leaders should be given the benefit of the doubt and that the war will soon end and democracy be rapidly restored to Iraq. His daughter, Daisy, disagrees and they argue about it almost from the minute they meet. McEwan does not seem to take any one side or rather, sees, both sides as I think he does in real life.
Of course, the third way which a novelist – a good novelist – brings forth his ideas is to have them come out of the story. There are lots and lots of ways of doing this and McEwan uses a few. I will mention just one but the key one. His views on Iraq have, as already said, been discussed by Henry and Daisy. However, the background to the whole story is the massive demonstration against the war. Daisy, on her way over from Paris, for example, stops at the demonstration, as she is so passionately opposed to war. Henry and his squash partner are both delayed on their way to their squash game by the traffic detours and blockages, which leads to Henry’s confrontation with Baxter and Nige. Henry sees it on the news on various televisions during the course of the day. (McEwan’s use of 24 hour television news is another interesting meme that deserves more discussion.) In short, it is out there. We don’t see much of the demo but we do know that a lot of people (2 million?) are against it and we do know that Blair tries to respond to it but as Perowne/McEwan point out does not come across as sincere. In other words, this is not a popular war. More importantly, there is Henry’s discussion with his daughter. One of the points that comes out of their discussion is that she is anti-war without seeing the other side, namely the terrible harm that Saddam Hussein has caused (and is still causing) to his own people. While Henry answers this (but not well), the issue of cruel and random violence is superbly brought home by McEwan, when Baxter and Nige invade their home and attack them. McEwan’s message is clear. Be careful what you say about the war before you have fully thought about (and experienced) the benefits of getting rid of ruthless thugs like Saddam Hussein.
Closely related to this theme is the Russian plane that starts it all. The book starts with Henry rising very early and looking out at the night sky. He sees what he thinks is a comet or meteor and then recognises it as a plane on fire. From concern for the passengers (and wondering whether he, as a doctor, should help), he soon starts to worry that this might be a 9/11 style terrorist attack. During the course of the day, he follows the story on the TV (though not, interestingly enough, on the Internet) and the story develops from being a possible terrorist attack to something less sinister. Again, this is a prescient (though, as McEwan himself points out, only mildly prescient) concern as to where the war might lead us and, of course, London was indeed attacked (though not by a plane) after the book was published.
Writing. Isn’t it all about writing? Of course, it is. But there is something that distinguishes the good from the less good, something indefinable which, to quote Zuleika Dobson, you know when you see it. Critics – good, bad and ugly – have a terrible time with this as they can’t really define it, don’t all agree what it is (or that it even exists) and have wildly differing views on who has it and who doesn’t (see John Banville, for example). Sorry, John, but McEwan has it. He has it in spades. Some of it comes from what we have mentioned above but much of it comes from some skill he has, whether innate or learned I do not know. His writing convinces. It seems both real and, at the same time, to be more than real and this is the secret of a good novelist. He writes something that we recognise as real but which we can see is not quite real. It is not just that few of us personally know neurosurgeons or published poets, though that is part of it, but that we do not get to see inside a person the way we see inside Henry. Just as importantly, though the plot is not the strong point of the book, McEwan keeps our interest very much alive through the skill of his writing. We are interested in Henry, even if we are not a 50 year old neurosurgeon and, though he is not an intergalactic hero or a detective tracking down a bad guy, he is infinitely more interesting than either. I have used the term writing but you could say voice or even style.
And that’s it? That’s what a novel is about? No, of course it isn’t. That’s some of what a conventional novel is about. The beauty of the novel form, as the quotes above show, is that there are different types of novel which are equally worthwhile and which do not lend themselves to this type of interpretation And, of course, I have omitted many other aspects. Setting and dialogue are key and have only been touched on in passing. And then there are the -isms – formalism, structuralism, post-modernism, the New Criticism, Reader-Response Theory, post-colonialism and so on, all of which look at the novel in a different, sometimes very different, way. Let’s touch on one – feminism. This is not the place to go into feminist literary theory, particularly as many have done it far better than I could but let’s look at McEwan’s treatment of women. Frankly, it’s not impressive. Rosalind, Henry’s wife, is, frankly, given short shrift. She remains a shadowy figure, asleep, unreachable by phone and only relevant for plot purposes when Baxter holds a knife to her. Henry makes it very clear that he loves her and they do talk but she still remains an incomplete character. Daisy, his daughter, seems to be more a cipher than a real character. She is there as a hook for McEwan’s discussion of literary theory, as a foil for Henry in the discussion of the impending war and, again, as a plot driver in the confrontation with Baxter and Nige. But she doesn’t come across as a full character, definitely taking second place to her brother. Literature remains, to a great extent, the preserve of the Dead White Males and McEwan seems to be doing his bit.
The unities. This novel has been compared to Mrs Dalloway, which, like this novel, takes place on a single day and involves preparation for a party. It even starts with the sighting of a plane and involves a violent confrontation. The book may well have influenced McEwan and he will have certainly read it. However, he may also be harking back to the Unities, which required dramas to be set within a twenty-four period and which, of course, are rarely used, except by chance, and have been essentially forgotten. Maybe the highly literate McEwan has decided to revive them.
Let us not forget that McEwan came from that school of writing that Kenneth Tynan famously described as the squeezing pimples school of writing, i.e. where the writers took pleasure in describing bodily functions in some detail. McEwan has not fully moved away from that as this novel shows. Despite that, and the other defects mentioned above, McEwan on an off-day is better than pretty well any other British writer. This novel, however, is not McEwan on an off-day but on an on-day. Despite John Banville, it is a first-class novel and one that should be read by anyone who wants to see what the contemporary literary novel should be.
First published 2005 by Jonathan Cape