Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Doubleday, 2005
Page Count: 289
By Rev. Mark Ralls
(UMCom) -- Ian McEwan seems to have turned over a new leaf. The acclaimed author, considered a literary icon in his native Great Britain, is best known for neo-gothic tales of twisted characters trapped by their own dark obsessions. In his latest novel, McEwan leaves behind those shadowy back alleys and saunters over to the sunny side of the street. According to a recent interview, it all began one day when McEwan found himself wondering, "What would happen if you've got a man who is not about to … wreck his life, who doesn't have a terminal disease and is not alienated, whose children are not drug addicts and who has a pleasing relationship with his wife?" Saturday is McEwan's answer. Following one remarkably well-adjusted man over the course of a single day, the novel is an exploration of domestic contentment; a microscopic view of the quotidian pleasures of work, marital sex, weekend sports and, above all, family.
However, McEwan's intent to display a thoroughly untroubled life runs through the novel like a hairline fracture, weakening at almost every turn. Most of what we discover about McEwan's protagonist, Dr. Henry Perowne, is reduced to the sources of his contentment. We learn of the daily satisfactions of Perowne's career as a neurosurgeon. We learn he is so enamored of his lawyer wife that fidelity comes naturally. "What a stroke of luck," McEwan quips, "that the woman he loves is also his wife." We are meant to bask in the glow of his children's accomplishments. His winsome daughter takes home prestigious awards for her poetry and his son is a virtuoso blues guitarist - the Eric Clapton of his generation. They are all polite, respectful and supportive. It is all a bit much.
Saturday occasionally reads like one of those annoyingly boastful Christmas letters where we discover that Junior is at the top of his class and Sis somehow managed to win homecoming queen for the third straight year. The trouble with such letters is the problem with this novel. We never really know the person behind the accolades. The characters in Saturday are flat and lifeless, mere caricatures of the upwardly mobile.
This weakness is especially evident when McEwan injects some of his trademark suspense into the plot. A street-tough thug with a personal vendetta against the good doctor breaks into the Perowne's home and holds the family hostage. This is supposed to be a chilling, tense scene but, because the reader has little emotional connection to the characters, it feels strangely antiseptic.
For Christian readers, perhaps the greatest benefit of Saturday lies in McEwan's careful assessment of the secular mind. Henry Perowne is not a religious man. He is not so much an atheist. Atheism would require taking the possibility of belief seriously enough to reject it. Instead, he is areligious. For him, religious faith "amounts to what his psychiatric colleagues call a problem…. the ordering of the world in line with your own needs, an inability to contemplate your own unimportance." Henry is best described as a strident materialist, not in the economic sense of spending too much time at the mall, but in the philosophical sense. Soul and spirit have no meaning for Perowne; he has reduced all of life to its most basic components.
As a person of faith, I cannot help seeing this perspective as a loss. It leaves Perowne morally paralyzed as he wrestles with the big questions of life - ones dealing with war, justice and suffering. We see this in the opening scene as Henry awakes early in the morning just in time to witness a fiery plane crash. McEwan writes, "His crime was to stand in the safety of his bedroom, wrapped in a woolen dressing-gown, without moving or making a sound, half dreaming as he watched people die." In another scene, Henry is buying ingredients to prepare fish stew. He ponders the latest scientific research indicating that fish have a higher capacity for pain than previously assumed. "This," he thinks, "is the growing complication of the modern condition, the expanding circle of moral sympathy. Not only distant peoples are our brothers and sisters, but foxes too, and laboratory mice, and now the fish." In this, and all moral issues, Henry finds himself caught between broad moral sympathies and his inclination to maintain his personal pleasures.
The novel begs the question: How do we make moral decisions without the capacity to distinguish between goodness and the "good life?" For Henry, the only viable answer is resignation. This is his default moral position. It shadows his ultimate commitment to the sources of his contentment. When the novel ends, we find Henry cocooning once again in his London bedroom. He remains troubled by the state of the world, but also quite convinced he can do nothing about it.
While Saturday is far from McEwan's best work, it is thought-provoking. In the climactic, and least satisfying, scene in the novel, Henry's daughter foils their family's attacker by quoting lines from Dover Beach by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold. While this poem suggests that love delivers salvation, it also speaks of the loss of belief in the modern world, the "melancholy, long withdrawing roar" of the retreating "Sea of Faith." It makes me wonder, has McEwan really turned over a new leaf? Perhaps he has not abandoned his fascination with darkness after all. Perhaps Saturday is meant to take us to a place where the shadows are less noticeable because light itself has been dimmed.
The Rev. Mark Ralls is senior pastor of St. Timothy United Methodist Church, Brevard, N.C.
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