Saturday, by Ian McEwan

Saturday is about one day in the life of its protagonist. The modern novel will allow this concentration, although it becomes rather full of the description of thoughts, reactions, the internal responses of a man to his circumstances. It strikes me the novel is like the pulsing of blood in the brain. The pulsing of blood through the brain is necessary, but hardly requires constant attention unless the brain is opened up.

What else makes it like the pulsing of blood in the brain is that the main narrative is in the present tense. I myself find this technique irritating most of the time. Mervyn Peak made use of it effectively for dramatic emphasis, but even he prolonged it too much for my taste. It seems to me it ought to be used sparingly, for rare and obvious purpose. Not that the dramatic sensation of blood pulsing through the brain, the immediacy that it lends to the stream of consciousness or rather the pulse of consciousness, is entirely purposeless. McEwan uses it to some purpose when he sorts out flashbacks and resumes the main narrative: it works well for organizing the chronology of the events in case the reader’s mind has the tendency to wander. More importantly, the use of the present tense underscores the distance of the past, and this bears on the theme of the novel. And so I dare bring against it no condemnation greater than that I find it unsuited to my taste, a dull but pervasive irritation like an incipient headache.

I think it is an ingenious way to think about living in the world today: to pick the events of a single day, the day of the massive protests in London before the invasion of Iraq. The way he handles his material is not only ingenious but also thought provoking—quite apart from the usual fascination of looking into the way other people live and think about things and what sort of routines and interruptions fill up their day.

Whatever else the book provides it does provide a very interesting series of situations (however slowly some of them proceed, in the unaccelerated present tense—the eternal moment, the microscope moment of examination) all centering around terrorism, war protests, the resistance of assault, attack, and the coming of together of civilization and savageness, or rather the eruption of savagery in the midst of the civilization of modern society. There is even a crucial turning point around a certain poem in which there is such an exquisite collusion of various situations that whatever one thinks of some of the elements, one cannot but admire the brain in which the whole was conceived.

The research behind the novel—research being the only orthodoxy of modern novelists I have been able to perceive—strikes me as formidable, whether it is or not. I do not have much patience with these dazzling and overwhelming offerings to the modern taste of editors, or publishers, or agents, or maybe even modern readers for facts, for minutely real descriptions. I dislike hearing writers say they were researching a novel. There is something wrong and barren in the concept that one day I will search out and expose, something minute. Right now it is an ambiguous disgust I feel, a pervasive irritation like an incipient headache. In this particular novel the squeamish reader is made to pass through two complete surgeries. Is there any literary merit in these unsparing descriptions? Perhaps.

From the interview at the Kenyon Review I learned our author is fond of reading scientific texts. So much so, he wishes somebody would make a collection of the most literary scientific writings, a sort of canon. It leads me to believe that in these explorations into the physical human, these fixings the neurosurgeon undertakes, excite a fascination that eludes me. Perhaps they explain something, these goings into the brain in this book of thinking, of thinking of distress and problems, of considering disorders of the nerves or the deteriorating brain, of the exposure of the disintegrating social order and ways of life. The possibilities are there, reminding me of the pulsing blood inside the brain which has been opened up. I suggest them to you, but I cannot do more.

At one point I thought the book was like Herzog augmented: the unexplained life is not worth living, as old Herzog writes to Nietzsche. A life? Let us examine a single day! McEwan does have a lengthy quotation from Herzog at the beginning, and from the interview it would not be hard to construe a high regard for Bellow. And yet I wonder about the weight of every emotional response described, exposited, burdened with medical insight. Could it have been put more delicately? Ought not the adroitness of the reader to read be counted on a little more? I wonder.

McEwan remarks in the interview that a writer cannot make his metaphors, his similes, his comparisons, illustrations and gestures too clumsy with one-to-one significance; they have to be more delicate. The problem for any novelist is understanding the proper ambiguity while getting across some significance, something more than just an entertaining story, an insight into life—and modern life at that. The novelist has to suggest something of the nature of the questions we ask and live with, to suggest a way to find answers or at least a way to fruitfully consider the questions.

The problem in Saturday is the problem to which Chivalry was the ingenious answer long ago: how do civilized people deal with barbarians? What tempers the force of resistance so that the resistors are not contaminated, do not become like those they resist? How does one violently resist the violent and still remain untainted by that which wrongfully stirs up their violence? We need a modern answer. The protagonist of the novel considers the problem, watches it form in his consciousness; we watch it, like the pulsing of blood in a brain that has been opened up. He is a man troubled, seriously troubled by the consideration that he might be lacking in seriousness and by the serious problems that make up the situations of his life. We need a modern answer, and perhaps McEwan wants to find one that accords with modern science, since it is one of the few certainties modern man thinks he retains. Perhaps McEwan wants to show instead the uncertainty of this certainty in the present world, the inadequacy of scientific certainty to address things seriously?

I do not know, although I tend to think this last is the thing. There is a paucity of understanding in the search for certainty by accumulating facts and details, of searching for more facts and details with the tools our age has perfected to this end. It is missing an elusive insight. There is irony in the protagonist’s thought that as DNA was decoded, all the brain will one day be understood by science and still remain a mystery. The irony is shown in the certainty of the mystery, the bathos of the idea that science will bring understanding if only it can make sufficient progress. And I wonder if this does not explain the researches displayed, the descriptions with which the protagonist experiences his day; I wonder if the novel should be understood ironically. I admit I have my doubts. I do know the novel is more than entertainment, it is the labor of thought and considerable skill, it explores the realms of the irreducible mystery, laying open a mind in the pulsing rhythm of the medium of its consciousness.


One thought on “Saturday, by Ian McEwan

  1. My favorite McEwan is still BLACK DOGS–though he has never written a bad novel. There’s a metaphysical component to BLACK DOGS that makes it more mysterious and compelling than even his best early work. A confrontation on an ordinary day leads to all sorts of speculations on the nature of good and evil, with a lovely tie-up at the end…

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