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The task of writing up Ian McEwan's Saturday (Jonathan Cape, 2005) has loomed forbiddingly over a difficult weekend, and before tackling it I have had to banish any idea of doing the novel justice. Although not without incident, Saturday is less a conventional novel than a heroic sculpture, a David for our times, a portrait of a man in full. Beyond that, however, I have no comprehensive insights, so I shall fall back on that old (but readable) crutch, "random notes."

According to a piece in the Times by Charles McGrath just over a month ago (Archive), Saturday is stocked with autobiographical references - not a hallmark of Mr McEwan's earlier fiction (rather the reverse). Henry Perowne, a forty-eight year-old neurosurgeon, actually lives in Mr McEwan's house in Fitzrovia. There is something about the prose that from the start invites an identity of author and character; perhaps this something is the way in which Mr McEwan substitutes details for summaries; the quiddity of a life is palpable beneath the page, such that one can almost smell Henry. But there is a bigger difference between the two than their respective professions. Henry Perowne is not a reader. Although he has fine taste in art and music, an innate gracefulnessl that makes him a success in the operating room, he cannot attend to imaginative fiction. Novels, to Henry Perowne, are long and opaque. The text is dotted with periodic references to this trait, which I hesitate to call a defect even though I certainly feel that it is one.

Henry's mother, Lily, lives in a home for Alzheimer's victims, and in the middle of his Saturday Henry pays her a visit. It is excruciating for him to follow the chain of her shardlike memories; we are not brought up to respond to nonsense with cheerful politeness. Lily is stuck in a jam of moments that are neither of the past nor of the present but that confuse the two with a stubbornness that dismays her son. And yet by the time I reached this passage - which I had read, excerpted, in Granta some time ago (just as I had read the Dunkerque section of Atonement in advance) - I was struck that Henry, too, is stuck in a moment that shifts between memory and present perception. There is little imagination in Henry's mind. Perhaps that is for the best in a neurosurgeon. Perhaps imagination is distracting. But it is also, indisputably, enlarging, the means by which the mind appropriates the world around it, instead of simply reacting to it.

At the beginning of the novel, Henry wakes in the middle of the night and goes to his tall bedroom window, where beyond the London Telecom Tower he witnesses the descent toward Heathrow of a plane that's on fire. This will turn out not to be the terrorist event that Henry takes it to be, but the relatively mundane malfunctioning of an air freighter with only a small crew on board, all of whom survive the incident. Throughout the day that follows, Henry checks in on the unfolding story, which turns out to have a contraband angle.

Good news, but as he walks out of the kitchen in the direction of the larder, Henry feels no particular pleasure, not even relief. Have his anxieties been making a fool of him? It's part of the new order, this narrowing of mental freedom, of his right to roam. Not so long ago his thoughts ranged more unpredictably, over a longer list of subjects. He suspects he's becoming a dupe, the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder, opinion, speculation and all of the crumbs the authorities let fall. He's a docile citizen, watching Leviathan grow stronger while he creeps under its shadow for protection. This Russian plane flew right into his insomnia, and he's been only too happy to let the story and every little nervous shift of the daily news process colour his emotional state. It's an illusion, to believe himself active in the story. Does he think he's contributing something, watching news programmes, or lying on his back on the sofa on Sunday afternoons, reading more opinion columns of ungrounded certainties, more long articles about what really lies behind this or that development, or about what is most surely going to happen next, predictions forgotten as soon as they are read, well before events disprove them? For or against the war on terror, or the war in Iraq; for the termination of an odious tyrant and his crime family, for the ultimate weapons inspection, the opening of the torture prisons, locating the mass graves, the chance of liberty and prosperity, and a warning to other despots; or against the bombing of civilians, the inevitable refugees and famine, illegal international action, the wrath of Arab nations and the swelling of Al-Qaeda's ranks. Either way, it amounts to a consensus of a kind, an orthodoxy of attention, a mild subjugation in itself. Does he think that his ambivalence - if that's what it really is - excuses him from the general conformity? He's deeper in than most. His nerves, like tautened strings, vibrate obediently with each news "release." He's lost the habits of scepticism, he's becoming dim with contradictory opinion, he isn't thinking clearly, and just as bad, he sense that he isn't thinking independently.

These feelings, which are probably familiar to every liberal in the wake of the re-election of George W Bush, stem from a flaw in modern bourgeois life: the professionalization of political life at the lowest levels has reduced the general public's civic input to periodic elections. An educated, sophisticated and prosperous man such as Henry Perowne can read all he likes about current affairs, but what real difference does it make (he asks), either to him or to his country? Why are we such consumers of bloviation? It would certainly be much more useful to install Paul Krugman on a presidential council of economic advisers than to read his column every week; as it is, reading the column can induce a feeling of terrible futility.

Henry has a wife, Rosalind, to whom he has always been faithful, and two children, Daisy, in her twenties, and Theo, seventeen. These children are treated quite unequally by Mr McEwan's hand, and it is perhaps telling that the author has two sons and no daughter. Theo is a paragon, a blues guitarist of some note despite his tender years, and a gentle if hooded creature. There is an almost sobbing love folded into the descriptions of Theo that will be familiar to the abashed father of any remarkable child: it is a love altogether incapable of gratification, because there is nothing that a child can do to reduce the pressure without replacing it with a crushed, equally outer-centered disappointment. The passages will explain to these children their parents' strangely thunderstruck affection, or at least illuminate the experience of it.

Henry's Saturday is dogged by a compact thug named Baxter. Baxter is a nasty piece of work with some big boys on hand to do the manhandling. Cornered by this trio, Henry is clever enough to recognize Baxter as a victim of Huntingdon's chorea, a fatal brain disease. Baxter is naturally confounded by Henry's diagnostic questions, and the accomplices are spooked. Even as he makes his escape (unharmed but for a punch to his sternum), Henry questions the prudence of having effectively belittled his assailant before the rank and file.

In the evening, Baxter, who has been following Henry about, attacks Henry at home, this time with only one of the accomplices. That's bad enough to endanger Henry's entire family, which includes Rosalind's father, the celebrated poet John Grammaticus. Daisy is compelled, mockingly, to read one of the poems in her newly-published book, but at a prompt from her grandfather she recites instead Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," which, refracted through Henry's consciousness, most readers will recognize even if he doesn't. (The novel's drollest line, very near the end, is "Henry has yet to find out whether this Arnold is famous or obscure.") The poem has an unexpected effect on the labile Baxter, who asks her to read it again and then flies into ecstasy - an elation that leads, through one thing and another, to his being flung down the house's marble stairway by the outraged Theo. What follows is almost fabulous, and, I should have thought, most irregular: it is Henry himself who attends to Baxter's damaged skull and brain. The procedure is described in lucid detail; meanwhile, the expectation of a remarkable ending intensifies unbearably: what will it be? In the event, transfiguring. (May 2005)

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