Home > Culture, Current Affairs, Literature, Politics, Reviews > Ian McEwan’s Saturday: An Ill-Suited Vessel for the Contents of Its Time

Ian McEwan’s Saturday: An Ill-Suited Vessel for the Contents of Its Time

British novelist Ian McEwan’s exploration of upper-middle-class malaise and uncertainty in the wake of 9/11 was contemporaneously heralded as a timely and prescient slice of insight into the then-current social and political mentality of the bruised world order of liberal-democratic capitalism. Following his almost universally-praised Atonement, a finely-balanced novel about guilt, forgiveness, and stortytelling set in the Britain of the 1930s and ‘40s, Saturday was bound to be greeted as a high-profile follow-up in literary circles, and greatness was again expected.

How disappointing, then, that Saturday finds McEwan facing up to defining issues of the early part of the 21st Century and having little of consequence to say. Reaction at the time of publishing trended towards the positive, but with the benefit of hindsight, I generally found myself agreeing with John Banville’s scathing take from The New York Review of Books: the politics are “banal” and the tone is “arrogant and self-satisfied”.

Even in Atonement, McEwan was concerned primarily with the problems of rich people (although WWII had a certain class leveling effect, at least on his characters), and once again he drops a big, heavy happening of consequence into the middle of their lives to shake them up and make them question their privilege, though not too much. In Atonement, it was a child rape and then the most deadly and destructive conflict in human history; in Saturday, it’s a fender-bender that leads to a home invasion set against the backdrop of historic protests against the Iraq War, all unfolding in the space of a single Saturday in London.

But McEwan’s whole package is redolent of the smug, conventional moral rectitude of then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who pedantically lectured his country and the world on the righteousness of the neoconservative-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s rogue state and paid for it with his political life when he turned out not to be quite correct enough. McEwan does include a small comic tableau of Blair’s politician-ly willingness to ingratiate: at a gala opening of the Tate Modern in London, the PM mistakes the protagonist Henry Perowne, a capable but humble and self-doubting neurosurgeon, for an admired contemporary artist, and smarmily covers his error.

It’s a nice moment, and there are plenty of nice moments in Saturday. McEwan writes with extreme control and poise, building occasionally towards measured epiphanies and strictly-apportioned truths. The problem with this is that he often strives to knock his regimented fictional reality off-kilter, to introduce elements of unpredictability and chaos into his plot to keep it interesting and, one supposes, to advance his central themes as well. But the precision of his prose undermines these efforts, renders them busy and forced, like an elaborate laboratory experiment mimicking natural stimuli. This writing approach works fine when employed in describing the Georgian layout of London’s Fitzroy Square or in detailing Perowne performing brain surgeries, but is perhaps not the best method for imparting the stressful aforementioned invasion of the Perowne home or a furious amateur squash game.

The details are subordinate to the larger social-political observations that McEwan is aiming at, however. In its time, Saturday was one of those artistic works that were odiously prefaced by the term “post-9/11”. Suggestive of both mainstream pundit-peddled sociology and watered-down critical theory, the phrase indicates, essentially, a text that deals with the then-prevailing mood of paranoia and disquiet that followed the terrorist attacks on America (and continued into later such acts in Madrid and London, the latter which McEwan predicts with muddled idiot-savant generality in the late stages of the book). If this idiom carries less weight now, that must be a statement of the extent to which the events that once stood astride all public discourse have faded in intrinsic cultural importance, if less so in shared memory.

For all of the metaphysical fulminations of our Ian McEwans and Jonathan Safran Foers, the West moved on from 9/11 and its aftershocks. We internalized its lessons and even came to regret the paths its looming spectre scared us into following, namely the Iraq War, the Bush-era surveillance state, and the United States’ descent into the moral stain of officially-sanctioned torture of terror suspects, to say nothing of the more quotidian suspicion and mistrust it inspired. But all of this is still mostly in the unforeseen future for McEwan and his characters, although some younger anti-war figures (Perowne’s poet daughter, for example) pessimistically see it coming and are generally dismissed by McEwan through Henry, who adopts a wait-and-see approach that dispenses with the moral clarity of youth (and is thus dismissed by youth, for its part).

An argument between Henry and his daughter Daisy lays out all of the now-dated Iraq War talking points on both the pro and con side. Although it is difficult to separate McEwan’s own views from his main character’s psychological perspective, his sympathies appear to be with the baby-boomer father, who abhors a war but is swayed by the sudden governmental concern for disposing of the monstrous dictator Saddam. His daughter suggests a fiasco and distrusts American power, especially as wielded by the neo-con bogeymen (Paul Wolfowitz’ name is mispelt as “Wolfovitz” in the text, a typo that one hopes has no intent of inflating his Semitism for nefarious purposes).

They rage at each other with surprising intensity, a political teeth-baring episode that is common enough in family gatherings Stateside at all times, but especially in our partisan age. And yet the perspective of time that Henry Perowne (and McEwan through him) appeals to vindicates neither perspective fully. Iraq was rather a fiasco; there were no WMDs, too many civilian and combatant deaths, an undammed flood of foreign nationals affiliated with terror cells into the country to target American troops, nasty sectarian violence, and a tenuous, imposed democracy that may not last far beyond the U.S.-led coalition’s withdrawal. But Saddam was deposed, captured and eventually executed for his crimes; his regime was wiped from the national slate. There has even been a relative flowering of liberty, or at least non-specific demands for greater freedoms, across the Middle East, very much as the neocon fantasists were derided for talking up.

Iraq’s relation to the Arab Spring is likely more one of correlation than of causation, and it was hardly a bloodless victory without suffering even if it eventually proves to be anything more than a regrettable venture at all. But Ian McEwan’s Saturday sees that war, those turbulent times, and everything else that could be construed as upsetting through the prism of wealthy refinement and comfort. It is too prim, too controlled, too eminently respectable to get near to the spirit of our era of subcultural fragmentation, social balkanization, and political division. The novel is a scrupulous-chosen vase on a pristine coffee table for a world that fears that it cannot keep a roof above its own head. It’s an ill-suited vessel for its ambitious contents, and the liquid leaks out from the cracks.

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  1. December 28, 2012 at 3:42 pm
  2. December 28, 2012 at 7:07 pm
  3. August 9, 2013 at 12:02 pm

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