Civilization and Its Malcontents

Alongside a "peace" demonstration in London, a crisis of micro-terrorism

I rather envy those who only after the "breakthrough" success of Atonement in the United States, or after Amsterdam won the Booker Prize, became readers and admirers of Ian McEwan. Ahead of them, rather than behind, lies the experience of reading Black Dogs, The Cement Garden, and (still, in my view, his masterpiece) The Child in Time. And this avenue of approach would make it easier to savor the maturing—now confirmed in the sober yet scintillating pages of Saturday—of a dual McEwan personality.

The "first" McEwan was (and is) a thoughtful child of the sixties, somewhat hippie-like in many ways, yet tense and gaunt and ironic behind his granny glasses. Much preoccupied with war and power and hierarchy, he helped to map the "alternative" ethos of those who could at least imagine a world without exploitation or bigotry or sexual jealousy. The summa of this Green and quasi-feminist outlook was to be found in the libretto he wrote for the composer Michael Berkeley, whose oratorio Or Shall We Die? provided a highly sensitive register of the anti-nuclear angst that accompanied the Euro-missile debate of the mid-1980s. "Shall we have womanly times?" inquires the chorus in this work. "Or shall we die?"

If one resorted to easy categorization for the sake of convenience, and termed this the "soft" McEwan, there was undeniably a "hard" McEwan in the wings, sometimes prompting himself. This McEwan had been brought up on British military bases overseas, possessed a working knowledge of martial history, could tell you a few things about how a campaign was fought and how the tougher applied sciences were deployed. The two McEwans fused in a useful fictional synthesis, in which the innocent and the idealistic were very often made to confront the nodes of brute reality, or the presence of evil and death—which frequently manifested themselves in the most banal circumstances.

The action of Saturday takes place within the twenty-four hours of February 15, 2003. This was the actual day when the whole of bien-pensant Britain moved into the streets to jeer at George Bush and Tony Blair and to denounce the coming Anglo-American intervention in Iraq. Henry Perowne, a skillful and flourishing neurosurgeon living in the very center of London, finds himself troubled by more than the resulting traffic jam. He is not above the fray, or outside it, but, rather, at a slight angle to it. He does not put any particular faith in the government, and his talented children are with the demonstrators in their hearts, yet his practice has introduced him to an Iraqi exile professor, who has told him what life is really like in the abattoir state of Saddam Hussein, and Perowne's honesty and scruples make him a reluctant prisoner of this knowledge.

No assumption is less safe than that an author's thoughts are his characters' thoughts, which are conveyed in this case in a Runyonesque historical present ("He rises …" "He strides …") that solidifies the context and the actuality. However, one does not have to know very much about the author to realize that Perowne has Ian McEwan's wife, Ian McEwan's parents, a representative cross-section of Ian McEwan's children and stepchildren, and also Ian McEwan's house. This is located in the sub-bohemian area known—after its centerpiece in Fitzroy Square—as "Fitzrovia," a neighborhood already familiar to the readers of Anthony Powell, Patrick Hamilton, and Julian Maclaren-Ross. Having furnished these apparent pointers to himself, McEwan makes a knight's move in the opposite direction, giving us a vivid idea of Perowne's revulsion from much modern literature.

What were these authors of reputation doing—grown men and women of the twentieth century—granting supernatural powers to their characters? He never made it all the way through a single one of those irksome confections. And written for adults, not children. In more than one, heroes and heroines were born with or sprouted wings … Others were granted a magical sense of smell, or tumbled unharmed out of high flying aircraft. One poor fellow spotted through a pub window his parents as they had been some weeks after his conception, discussing the possibility of aborting him.

Here a reproof to The Satanic Verses is immediately and rather startlingly succeeded by a brusque dismissal of the crucial scene in the author's own The Child in Time, which was published in 1987. It is not self-evident to me that McEwan intends any repudiation here, but certainly nothing is even remotely "magic realist" about Saturday, unapologetically anchored as it is in the material world and its several discontents. And I think I would surmise that the following is McEwan speaking, whether "through" Perowne or not, about the "anti-war" crowd.

All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets—people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well
as each other. If they think—and they could be right—that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be somber in their view.

And then a sinister note is struck, instantly succeeded by a stress on the innocent and the inane.

A placard of one of the organizing groups goes by—the British Association of Muslims. Henry remembers that outfit well. It explained recently in its newspaper that apostasy from Islam is an offence punishable by death. Behind comes a banner proclaiming the Swaffham Women's Choir, and then, Jews Against The War.

This same dryness and measure is very much present in McEwan's nonfiction writing since 9/11, inaugurated by an essay in the Guardian in which he very daringly underlined the three words—"I love you"—that were most commonly used in the final messages of those trapped on the planes and in the towers, and managed, without any appeal to gross sentiment, to fashion this into a perfect, cool indictment of the murderers. Perowne's Saturday actually begins before dawn, when he glimpses an airplane trailing fire over London as it descends, and wonders if he is witnessing the beginning of another atrocity. He belongs to the camp of those who believe that September 11 was a hinge event, rather than an annoying interruption to the lofty struggle against globalization.

Although the narrative is relentlessly about "today" (Tony Blair makes an appearance under his own name and in propria persona; in contrast, Mrs. Thatcher was intriguingly disguised for her cameo in The Child in Time), the subtext of the novel is concerned with the fascinating arcana of the mind-body distinction. In broad daylight, and in consequence of a trivial traffic accident that arises from the "peace" demonstration, Perowne comes face-to-face with self-destructive violence and aggression. His neurological expertise allows him to make an on-the-spot diagnosis of Huntington's disease in his assailant: "This is how the brilliant machinery of being is undone by the tiniest of faulty cogs, the insidious whisper of ruin, a single bad idea lodged in every cell, on every chromosome four." And we are somehow put in mind of the random damage and danger being caused, a continent and a culture away, by the psychopathic regime of Saddam Hussein.

McEwan has made a special niche for himself as a chronicler of the physics of everyday life and of the capacity of the quotidian to serve up sudden indigestible helpings of risk and alarm. He is at his best in these latest pages, rehearsing the concertina effect of time on the West London rush hour, and delivering a virtuoso description of the aerodynamics of a squash game, the latter so absorbing that it can be read with pleasure and illumination even by a sports hater like myself. A form of individual and existential annihilation less noxious than Huntington's is also presented, when Perowne goes to visit his mother—a woman stranded in time and afflicted with amnesia and nominal aphasia. This phenomenon is by definition hard to put into words, but McEwan's ear for the luckless yet unknowing woman's chatter ("She wants to come on one of them long things but she doesn't have the fare") allows him to bring it off with deftness and compassion.

In his understated but sturdy main character he gives us an instance of one of the best who lack all conviction. Perowne feels that he has earned what he enjoys—his lovely house and his sleek new car—but that he has to keep on justifying his good fortune. Stephen, in The Child in Time, was visited by the same anxiety in a different form.

For years he had convinced himself he belonged at heart with the rootless, that having money was a merry accident, that he could be back on the road any day with all his stuff in one bag. But time had fixed him in his place. He had become the sort who casts about for a policeman at the sight of the scruffy poor. He was on the other side now.

Perowne is similarly apt to examine and suspect himself, but more inclined to reason the matter, and not quite so guilt-ridden.

After the ruinous experiments of the lately deceased century, after so much vile behaviour, so many deaths, a queasy agnosticism has settled around these matters of justice and redistributed wealth. No more big ideas. The world must improve, if at all, by tiny steps. People mostly take an existential view—having to sweep the streets for a living looks like simple bad luck. It's not a visionary age. The streets need to be clean. Let the unlucky enlist.

The unluckiest of all, however, really do suffer from biological determinism. These are the deranged, disintegrating radically under that smooth, highly evolved curve of skull which Perowne is so adept at opening up. One of his street-smart children tells him that it's amazing he's never been mugged, living as he does in a posh house in a rough district. And when the violence comes, horridly fast and hotly flavored with class resentment as well as madness, the master of the scalpel finds he cannot wield even a kitchen knife in his own defense.

The catharsis—a climax of terrorism and hostage-taking on the micro rather than the macro scale—is something I will have to leave to you. I betray nothing, however, if I say that McEwan deploys poetry as the arbiter. Again, he is at one level strictly literal and factual, citing the work of England's present-day poets—James Fenton, the laureate Andrew Motion, Craig Raine—with the directness of his earlier novelistic references. Perowne himself doesn't "get" poetry. He prefers the more reliable rhythms of music and machinery, and he puts his faith in the minute strokes and compelling symmetries of brain surgery. But he is "saved" by the salutary effect of a poem on a disordered mind.

This tribute to the sheer salience of language is succeeded and confirmed, in a passage of ice-cold prose mastery, by the healing power of science and technique. Reason, if you like, is restored to its throne, and the prosaic and the professional have their moment of honor and glory in turn. With this novel the soft and the hard McEwan come into an exquisite balance, just as the thin and objective blade pares away at the spongy, vulnerable tissue of the cerebellum. The man who could staunchly write, as the southern extremity of Manhattan was still awash in fire and stench, that in effect Amor vincit omnia here lucidly shows us that civilization and culture and the life of the mind, fragile as they seemingly are, nonetheless have a resilience that can outlast barbarism.