Monday, March 13, 2006

All right for fighting

Saturday, by Ian McEwan (Vintage, 2005)

Ian McEwan's Enduring Love is the Saving Private Ryan of the Granta 1983 generation. It starts with a truly arresting scenario, of an ordinary man who saves a child from being pulled into the sky by a balloon, and is himself dragged up to his death. McEwan, like Spielberg, cannot maintain the resonance of the beginning, and the story turns into a slightly unsatisfying tale of obsession and stalking in a familiar North London middle-class milieu. Saturday takes a number of key elements from the earlier novel, almost as if the author wants to get it right this time.

His latest novel is the tale of Henry Perowne, a middle-aged, comfortable neurosurgeon, who has a run-in with an unstable young man, Baxter. The encounter seems to be uneasily resolved, until Baxter reappears at Perowne's house. The action takes place over a single day; moreover, that day is the 15th of February, 2003, when anti-war protesters filled the streets of London.

The demonstration is something of a McGuffin; its most important function is to provide the traffic situation that provokes the initial contact between the protagonists. The red meat of the novel is Perowne's various musings and reminsicences, and the violent peril in which he and his family are placed towards the end.

Or is it? Much has been made of the fact that McEwan went well beyond the normal research methodology we normally expect from British literary novelists of his generation, to ensure that the medical details in the book were correct. The acknowledgements namecheck four neurosurgeons; McEwan actually sat in on many brain operations. As a result, Perowne's internal monologue is full of bilateral extradurals and micro-dopplers and transsphenoidal hypophysectomies. He also likes Bach during surgery, and the blues that his son plays. But when it comes to literature (Perowne's daughter Daisy and his father-in-law are both poets), the brilliant surgeon is all adrift. She's reading Kafka at the age of 13; our hero manages 48 pages of Henry James (he prefers his brother) and he can't even get started with poor old Conrad. Cue F.R. Leavis rotating in his grave.

And it's Leavis, and most specifically his bitch-fight with C.P. Snow (a.k.a. the Two Cultures controversy) that provides the real philosophical centre here, although neither 20th-century titan gets an explicit nod. It's about art and science and whether the twain will ever do more than nod politely at Oxbridge sherry parties. Perowne is a brilliant scientist, but there's still something missing, McEwan seems to say. Anyone can get to grips with this science business - you just have to hover by the elbow of this bloke doing a transsphenoidal whatnot.

But, let's face it, most of McEwan's readers won't know whether or not the minutiae of tumours and skullflaps is accurate or not. We have to accept its authenticity. Whereas, the literary references are there for the picking. So, a reference to clearing out the belongings of Henry's senile mother is "striking the set of a play" and we get a bonus for spotting a intertextual metaphor with a side order of Verfremdungseffekt. We might chuckle as Raine and Fenton and Heaney and Hughes and Motion hover briefly in the same universe as McEwan's fictional poets (and there's a further joke in that). Even the structure, with Perowne's thoughts bouncing around inside the framework of a single day, echoes Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway.

Then, when Daisy distracts Baxter's attention by stripping naked and reciting poetry (Salome meets Scheherazade?) the alert among us will know that it's a deception; the poem she claims as her own is Arnold's Dover Beach. The joke is that Perowne doesn't know it's a fake (real?) either. And then we slap our heads and gasp "D'OH!" because we didn't spot that Daisy's 'real' poems are decorated with lines borrowed from Craig Raine, the man who, on the cusp of 'reality' and 'fiction', supposedly beat her grandfather to the editorship at Faber, 22 years and 90 pages before.

By this stage, McEwan hasn't just OD'd on the Eng Lit refs and the wacky reality games; he's ladled on the middle-class smugness so thickly, that one almost sympathises with the disaffected thug who tries to destroy the Perownes' domestic idyll. Indeed, there's an analogy between the demented bullies, Baxter and Saddam; by implication, the Perownes represent Western civilisation against the encroachment of savagery. The only debate is whether to respond with force, with legality, with compassion, or something else. Maybe we should just have read Proust at Saddam, very loudly.

The implication is that Perowne, like Baxter, is an incomplete human, somehow less than civilised. He's very clever, and he can make soup, but his brilliance won't save the thug from the genetic disorder that makes him the way that he is; Baxter's only redemption, unlikely as it seems, is by way of poetry. Look at me, says McEwan to his central creation - I know what a polymodal nociceptor site looks like, but you couldn't spot "mechanical birds with many wings" if I drew you a map.

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