Ian McEwan is often hailed as Britain’s greatest living novelist, and in 1998 he received that country’s prestigious Booker Prize for his morality tale Amsterdam. Four years later, McEwan unleashed the large, solid Atonement to extremely positive reviews. His newly-released Saturday is being saluted as the work of a writer in his prime. But is this really the case?
The novel takes place over the course of one day, Feb. 15, 2003, and follows the movements of a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, as he makes his way around his native London on the day of the largest anti-war demonstration England has ever seen. Perowne plays a game of squash with a colleague, muses on the operations he has recently performed, and is involved in a road accident with a man named Baxter. Later that evening, as Perowne prepares for a family meal, Baxter violently re-enters his life.
In a Harvard Book Store-sponsored talk at the Brattle Theatre on April 1, McEwan placed the book in a long line of such novels-in-a-day, mentioning—among others—Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses. These are bold comparisons indeed, and McEwan’s work falls a long way short of both Woolf’s and Joyce’s. In Saturday, McEwan is attempting to paint a very big picture on a very small canvas: a portrait of post-Sept. 11 England on the brink of war with Iraq, conveyed through the daily interactions of one man with his work, his family, and his fellow Londoners. Perhaps the Iraq war is still too recent to be transformed into a backdrop to fiction, but more likely McEwan simply drops the ball. His musings on the war and on terrorism interrupt the narrative erratically and feel inorganic.
Recounting a breakfast conversation between Perowne and his blues-musician son Theo, McEwan writes:
“They discussed Iraq of course, America and power, European distrust, Islam—its suffering and self-pity, Israel and Palestine, dictators, democracy—and then the boys’ stuff: weapons of mass destruction, nuclear fuel rods, satellite photography, lasers, nanotechnology. At the kitchen table, this is the early-twenty-first-century menu, the specials of the day.”
Here the greatest flaws of the novel are laid bare, both in the shameless cheapness of that last sentence and in the overwhelming monotony of the lengthy list. Where the detailed research into psychiatry for Enduring Love and British soldiers’ letters for Atonement were seamlessly contained by the narratives, in Saturday McEwan’s efforts become obtrusive. The medical terms used to describe the operations Perowne performs are obviously necessary to any genuine effort to record what is happening, but often these terms swamp the scenes themselves, smothering the prose with a desperate anxiety for accuracy.
Even outside of the hospital, Saturday is a book intimately concerned with the mundane processes of the everyday. The squash game is reported almost point for point, as is Perowne’s cookery. Some of these passages contain stunning descriptions, but they are too self-involved, halting the flow of the book and dragging attention away from the at times intriguing melodrama of Perowne’s family and of the deranged Baxter.
Even these characters though, who provide a welcome relief from the monotony of many of these descriptions, are too flimsy to ever really come to life. Perowne’s wife and daughter are lifeless: the former appears too infrequently and unmemorably to spark interest, while the latter comes across as slightly demented in her cloying girlishness.
Similarly McEwan tries to avoid any need to flesh out Theo’s character by implying that his real self is found in his music. But this too fails in a puzzlingly flat description of one of his band’s rehearsals. Even Baxter is dull in the peril he presents. He has little power over the Perownes and is too erratic and crudely drawn to seem menacing as opposed to merely unpleasant. Perowne is solid if not especially likable but does not provide enough of a solid center to forgive the weak sketches that surround him.
It is important to emphasize that Saturday is not a slight misstep for McEwan but an almost complete failure. The stultifying prose surrounding his time in the surgery, the flimsiness of the characters, and the dull pacing of the narrative itself—unable to create real suspense surrounding even the most extreme of scenarios—conspire to sink Saturday like a lead balloon. It is perhaps no wonder then that McEwan was testy at his reading, snapping at the audience’s admittedly fatuous questions and reading a lengthy segment spanning each of the novel’s ill-fitting strands as if in defiance. Everybody fails at times, and McEwan has a phenomenal talent which here pokes through all too rarely. To ignore his failure here is to do a disservice to the fantastic work he has done in the past.