Thursday, July 06, 2006

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Well written but slow moving, Ian McEwan’s Saturday takes almost two hundred pages to get to the action of the story. One of the blurbs on the cover was amusing in retrospect: “Read the final 100 pages at one sitting.” That’s because it takes so long to get to that you can’t help but continue reading.

That said, McEwan has drawn up three-dimensional characters and conflicts that linger long after you slip your bookmark between the pages of this 2005 novel. Henry Perowne, the lead character, is a neurosurgeon in London who awakes early on a Saturday morning feeling completely awake. He sees a plane on fire heading toward Heathrow, chats with his son Theo -- a burgeoning blues guitarist -- returns to bed where Henry and his wife, Rosalind, make love, then after a post-coital rest he heads to play squash. All this takes eighty-one pages, and we’ve still not arrived at a key moment; more than a quarter of the way in, the book has been all about character development.

The story takes place in February 2003, weeks before the beginning of the current Iraq war, and later that day hundreds of thousands -- perhaps two million -- will protest the inevitable war. But even that isn’t the story, exactly. At its heart, Saturday is about terror – witnessing it, anticipating it, experiencing it, and especially overcoming it. In some ways, the story has more in common with the American Airlines flight heading to the Dominican Republic, which went down from Kennedy Airport almost two months after 9/11 than the terrorist attacks that resulted in the deaths of thousands in New York, Washington, and the field where flight United 93 crashed.

For Henry Perowne and his family, the terror comes from a man named Baxter. To call him a thug is too facile, and McEwan makes the character sympathetic. Unattractive and suffering from what Perowne diagnoses from observation as Huntington’s Disease, Baxter is also intelligent and would forgo violence for a glimmer of hope to avert his fate: dementia, lack of physical control, death. Though he doesn’t use the poem, Dylan Thomas’s famous line “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” seems apropos.

Instead, it is another poem, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” that carries the day. When Baxter and his crony, Nigel, break into the Perowne household, young poet Daisy (who has returned to her parents’ home from Paris with a galley proof of her soon-to-be-published collection of poems and a baby on the way) is inspired by her grandfather, poet John Grammaticus, to recite Arnold’s famous work. The poem enthralls Baxter, to the point that he fixates on what he believes is the girl’s work. In a sense, their lives -- even Baxter’s -- are saved by poetry.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Whether specifically in Arnold’s poem or in Saturday, McEwan’s message seems to be this: You should face terror the same way you face life -- head on. Protest. Debate. Create art. Anticipate death and do whatever is within your power to hold it back.

Saturday is filled with the mundane amid the truly horrifying. When witnessed, terror can be inaudible. When all around you is the noise of conflict, your personal horrors can pass unwitnessed. Like squash players, people battle on against time and physical deterioration. And in the end, a new day emerges as you’re still thinking about yesterday.

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