Monday, March 18, 2013

Reading group: Ian McEwan's Saturday

Warning: plot spoiler.

Mark suggested this book which he said he really admired, considering it a truly great book:  a novel set, like James Joyce's Ulysses and Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, in the course of a single day, the day here being the momentous one of Saturday February 15th, 2003, when hundreds of thousands of protestors converged on London to demonstrate against the Iraq invasion. It concerns minutely the experiences and thoughts of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, from the moment he wakes before dawn in his beautiful and beautifully appointed several-storey town house on Fitzroy Square - when he sees from the tall window a plane on fire and hurtling down towards Heathrow - to the moment he falls asleep at the end of the day. In between, he watches the news for information about the plane he saw (by lunchtime it turns out it was a cargo plane that landed safely and its fire was put out; it was after all no terrorist event), and makes his way through the rituals of his own private day (comfortable chat in the kitchen with his amenable blues-guitarist son Theo, lovemaking with his beautiful lawyer wife Rosalind before setting off into demonstration-clogged London in his top-of-the-range Mercedes for a squash game nearby, shopping for, and later cooking, a fish stew for an evening family get-together, a routine visit to his mother suffering from dementia in a nursing home, and a visit to a rehearsal of Theo's band), rituals punctuated and threatened, along with the whole of Perowne's extremely comfortable life, by two dramatic events concerning a thug, Baxter, and his henchmen, and indirectly caused in the first place by the peace march. All of these events are filtered through Perowne's highly introspective and visually observant consciousness, his thoughts about the state of the world and his appreciation of his own material comfort and relish for the modern technology that facilitates it.                                                                                                                        

Mark began his introduction by reiterating his admiration for the book. He said it was full of wonderful set pieces: the lengthy descriptions of brain surgery, and most especially the 16-page description of the squash game. The writing was superb, the sentences brilliant. Mark said he found stunning the brilliant and accurate way the squash game was conjured up, and thought it just an amazing feat of writing. He thought the book was exceptional in capturing the atmosphere and preoccupations of our times. Finally, though, he said that he did have to concede that the denouement is ridiculous, in which Baxter - having invaded Perowne's home, threatened the family with a knife, forced Perowne's daughter Daisy to strip and demanded that she read a poem from her own newly-published book of poems - is put off his guard by being overcome by the poem she does actually recite, Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach.

There was now a huge chorus of derisive agreement about this last, and expressions of strong dislike for the book. Everyone else had found it tedious, the squash game in particular, which some said they had skipped; many had found the descriptions of brain surgery ridiculously preening and self-congratulatory as well as tedious, Ann saying she had skipped all but the first (Mark said that McEwan had done two years' research so of course he had to use it! and was met with howls of protest that Of course he didn't!), and someone, I think Jenny, roundly said that the book was smug.

John expressed a certain doubt about this last: was the book really smug, or was the author McEwan, a famously controlled writer, perfectly aware of Perowne's potential smugness and distanced from it? McEwan has insisted that, in spite of the novel being set in a house identical to his own Fitzroy Square townhouse, he isn't to be confused with Perowne and his views, as some critics have assumed. John noted that at times McEwan points to Perowne's potential failings: the fact, for instance, that he can't relate to literature in spite of his rising-star poet daughter and his very famous poet father-in-law John Grammaticus, and the fact that his son Theo needs to point out to his ridiculously un-streetwise and possibly patronising father  that he may have made a mistake in humiliating Baxter (in his first, morning encounter with him). While Perowne presents his daughter with arguments for the invasion of Iraq, his daughter's opposing view is also carefully presented, and elsewhere, towards the end of the novel, Perowne expresses doubt about the pro-war position he has espoused in the argument. But John said he simply couldn't decide while reading precisely what was the attitude of the author to the character. I said, In fact, Perowne expresses a fair amount of doubt about his own actions and perceptions, he's constantly turning them over and questioning them, but I too felt there was a certain air of smugness, a self-congratulatory satisfaction about that very self-questioning characteristic.

I thought that the clue lay in the fact that I found the viewpoint of the novel hard to grasp. In a long 2009 interview with Daniel Zalewski for The New Yorker which I have read since (culled over months of meetings with McEwan and running to 14 pages), McEwan talks of using a 'free indirect style' to stay close to the thoughts of a character but also to be able to comment on that character. He is referring in the interview to his novel Solar (then in progress) but I presume the comment also relates to Saturday. Although I had agreed with Mark that the novel was good on the level of the sentence - the sentences sound beautiful, elegant, and their meanings ring with clarity - I don't think McEwan employs this mode as cleverly as his reputation as a master manipulator of prose would indicate. Perowne, the only character whose perspective is presented throughout, is established early on as introspective, a 'habitual observer of his own moods', and the use of the intimate third person leads us into his introspections. Very early on, he thinks back over the previous day and the surgical procedures he performed. But as I read I found myself instantly wondering, What neurosurgeon describes to himself the procedures he conducted in quite this wide-eyed, detailed and instructive way? The overall perspective, however, seems very intimately Perowne's: going over one patient's medical history, he remembers, 'The tumour was remote from the frontal lobes. It was deep in the cerebellar vermis' which seems to me accurate doctor-speak. But then the next sentence follows thus: 'She'd already suffered early-morning headaches, blind spots and ataxia - unsteadiness,' and one is tempted to ask: what neurosurgeon needs to explain to himself what ataxia is? In other words, rather than the free-flowing effect of a double viewpoint (of both author and character) for which McEwan is aiming, we get one (unconvincing) viewpoint disrupted by a clumsy authorial intervention, a direct address to the reader. Throughout I often found myself wondering, Whose viewpoint is this supposed to be? Whose musings, at any moment, are these really, Perowne's or the author's? I also found a clumsy clash of fiction and fact, and a consequent disruption of suspension of disbelief, in the way that John Grammaticus, a fictional character, is meant to have publicly competed with our real-life well-known poets for their prizes and professorships. This section, in which real-life poets such as Heaney are name-checked, and which seemed while I was reading it to be Perowne's introspective memories of  Grammaticus' career, ends with a statement that none of the names mean anything to Perowne - which of course makes it unlikely that he would remember them in such detail, and once again there's a skewing of perspective, and a suggestion that we had not been quite as intimate with Perownes' consciousness as had seemed. And what about this use of the protagonist's surname, Perowne? Who ever thinks of himself by his surname? (Or indeed thinks of his father-in-law by his surname, as Perowne does?) It's a distancing which signals the viewpoint of the author rather than the character. But then what novelist getting inside the mind of a character thinks of that character by his surname? Perhaps McEwan moves in a different world from mine, where people do still think of themselves and their close friends and colleagues by their surnames, but to me it struck a psychologically false and possibly pretentious note.

Now other group members exclaimed that they found smugness in the fact that everything about Perowne is so perfect: his house, his car, his perfect marriage - his wife so beautiful and dynamic that he has never once had a moment's thought of being unfaithful and with whom he still has such an active love life that they make love twice in the day - the second time after Baxter's traumatic intrusion! - his so, so talented children and of course his famous father-in-law. People said they couldn't stand any of the characters, John (to cries of agreement) said that in any case the women were just fragrant objects - Rosalind, Perowne's wife, is freqently referred to as 'childlike' - and Trevor said he couldn't stand the unrealistically benign Theo. I said that Theo was a character I liked (I didn't find him unrealistic, but then I know some really nice young men!), but I did find that the novel carried a certain self-congratulatory note about the fact of his benignity. People found a lot of things - beside the risible denouement - highly unbelievable. Why, John said, would you bother to get out your car just to go a few streets in London to play a squash game (it's a crunch in the car that begins the trouble with Baxter)? Ann, who had actually been on the demonstration, said, And especially on that day: all the roads were closed and no one would have tried to drive! And what about Perowne managing to play a really hard game of squash after the thumping and immensely bruised chest he's received from Baxter? And as for the fact that in the end, after throwing Baxter down a stone stair, from which Baxter incurs a broken skull, Perowne (full of wine!) would have either wanted to or been allowed to operate on the man who had just broken into his house, threatened his daughter with rape and held a knife to his wife's throat...!

Mark said, Come on, you're all being far too pedantic - it's fiction! And Trevor joined in and said Yes, you can do anything in fiction! Ann said, Yes, you can as long as you make it believable, but none of the rest of us had found these things believable. I said, it's particularly problematic because of all the very minute realistic details: it's a novel that seems dedicated to realism, so you need to have psychological realism too. Mark said, But these aren't mistakes, McEwan knows what he's doing, he's very controlled. Doug and I replied, Yes, he's very controlled, but that's the problem: everything is manipulated (for the sake of both ideas and plot), over-controlled; it's not organic and it doesn't work. I said that I had felt that the hold-up scene was particularly manipulated: the dialogue seemed ridiculously, even embarrassingly unrealistic and I could feel McEwan straining to decide who would do or say what next in this scene that he had decided (intellectually) to set up. As a result, I found obscene the moment when Baxter makes Daisy take off her clothes, manipulated as I felt this moment was by the author. Doug referred back to the stair-throwing scene, and the unrealistic fact - in view of recent real-life events - that there was no question of Perowne and Theo being in any trouble with the police for their actions in so seriously injuring their intruder: the hat-tipping air of 'Don't worry, guv, there'll be no problem' which, in spite Perowne's self-questioning, adds to the general air of unquestioned privilege hanging over the novel. I also noted that while Baxter is actually tumbling down the stairs Perowne takes the leisure not only to compare the man's bad fortune with his own privileged life, but to actually itemise his own blessings: 'the work, money, status, the home, above all, the family - the handsome healthy son with the strong guitarist's hands come to rescue him, the beautiful poet for a daughter, unattainable even in her nakedness, the famous father-in-law, the gifted, loving wife'. Early on in the novel McEwan tries to prepare for this by saying that 'a second is a long time in introspection' and in the New Yorker article Martin Amis is quoted as commenting on McEwan's brilliance in slowing the action down in moments of crisis and noticing things that others wouldn't. This is a classic technique, but it needs to be the author's viewpoint slowing things down. This is one passage that strongly primes us to believe we are firmly in the mind of Perowne - as Baxter first tumbles away 'Henry thinks he sees in the wide brown eyes a sorrowful accusation' - and as Doug and I said, it's psychologically unconvincing that the character would be so introspective in a moment of such crisis.

John and I were also made uncomfortable by the fact that, although Perowne struggles with his own prejudice against the thuggish Baxter and displays a certain sympathy with him for the fact that he's suffering from Huntington's disease, the prose refers to Baxter twice, without any apparent authorial irony, as 'simian' and once as 'monkeyish'. One of the biggest flaws, people noted, was the fact that Perowne could be so very introspective and yet care so little for and have so little understanding of literature - and someone noted that, since Daisy had spent her childhood learning poetry by heart, including the Arnold poem, it was unlikely that Perowne should fail to recognise it, and indeed not even have heard of Arnold - unless, that is, he had been a pretty distant and/or absent dad, which would rather give the lie to his supposed loving relationship with her, and maybe explain its air of somewhat sentimental artificiality. Someone now said that it was pretty unlikely anyway that a surgeon should be so introspective, that in fact they tend as a profession towards the opposite, and indeed although some of us in the room had known many doctors we had never yet come across an introspective one, leave alone one of such depth of introspection, which leads one to suspect the conflation of author and character that McEwan so strongly denies. Even Mark agreed with this, and by the end of the discussion, although he still thought the book good, I think he had shifted a little in his view.

Jenny said, to general agreement, that the one bit of the novel she liked was Perowne's afternoon visit to his mother in the nursing home, in particular her dementia-induced speech with its fragmentation and blurring of past and present. Her speech contrasts sharply with the dogged realism of the rest of the prose, and in fact has the unexpected and poetic associations and perceptual disruptions which are very often the chief pleasures of fiction.

Clare, who had been unable to attend the meeting, and was later told that many of the group had hated the book, responded that she certainly hadn't hated it, but 'on the whole enjoyed reading it and wanted to finish it'. She said though that she had liked others of McEwan's novels better and thought this one was uneven. She hadn't really had time to formulate her thoughts, but off the top of her head she said she thought that in many places McEwan was working very hard to fill in enough detail to conform to the structure he’d given himself, ie all action in a single day, and that the detail was at times tediously obsessive, for example in the squash game.

EDITED IN (and developed from comments below): John has wondered since the meeting if the book is intended as more concretely symbolic than it has been taken. I remember now that he did start to try to say this in the meeting, but it's interesting that no one seemed to get what he was saying or took it up. Baxter, John suggests, stands for Iraq, which/who must be taken in line however much immediate damage this causes, but must be healed up afterwards by the agent doing so. Perowne stands for the liberal, cushioned West which is forced into an act of aggression for the sake of a greater safety. In this scenario, John suggests, the squash game between medical colleagues, conducted under the banner of friendship but expressing some real antagonism and aggression, is symbolic of the pre-war position-jostling between Bush and Blair. This interpretation also gives a symbolic meaning to the fact that the crunch in the car is caused indirectly by the peace march and its traffic-flow alterations: a symbol of the notion that peace moves would only facilitate the violence in Iraq. Contrasted with this is the plane Perowne sees on fire from his window: a counterpointing symbol of the notion that those arguing for the war are overestimating the terrorist threat to the West.
This does seem like the kind of thing the highly intellectual McEwan would do, but as John says, It's not very good if it isn't clear (or people find scenes too tedious to bother to read), and the whole message is undermined if on the human/character level the novel isn't psychologically convincing.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here


chillcat said...

A very thorough analysis of a book I did-not-quite enjoy. Written beautiful, but very smug, unreal and clichéed. By the end I was quite irritated! Do you think this is what McEwan intended?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Interesting question, Chillcat! Since the meeting John has wondered if McEwan was deliberately playing games with the reader: leading them to suspect the protagonist is the author, eg by setting the book in his own house, but then subverting those suspicions. However, this does seem a rather self-regarding thing to do (and would account for some of the book's self-regarding tone), as even John can't really see to what useful end it would be done.
John has also wondered since the meeting if the book is intended as more symbolic than it has been taken as: ie that Baxter stands for Iraq, which/who must be taken in line however much immediate damage this causes, but must be healed up afterwards by the agent doing so. Perowne stands for the liberal, cushioned West which is forced into an act of aggression for the sake of a greater safety. In this scenario, John suggests, the squash game between medical colleagues, conducted under the banner of friendship but expressing some real aggression, is symbolic of the pre-war position-jostling skirmishes between Bush and Blair. This does seem like the kind of thing McEwan would do, but as John says, It's not very good if it isn't clear (or people find scenes too tedious to bother to read), and the whole message is undermined if on the human/character level the novel isn't psychologically convincing.