Book #21 for 2011: Saturday by Ian McEwan
In the days leading up to the recent 10th anniversary of 9/11, I’ve seen several articles identifying this or that book as being a “9/11 novel.” Some of these were borderline cases, books where the reviewer felt that the fall of the towers loomed over the action like an unseen ghost, and I’m not sure that the authors of all of these books would have agreed that the events of September 11, 2001, had much if anything to do with their choice of material. But Ian McEwan’s Saturday is unquestionably a 9/11 novel and McEwan makes no attempt to disguise that fact. It takes place on a single Saturday in 2003, less than two years after the attacks, and they are often on the mind of the novel’s protagonist, a brilliant 40-something neurosurgeon named Henry Perowne. It also takes place on the day of an antiwar demonstration in London, where thousands have gathered to protest Britain’s participation in America’s coming war on Iraq. Perowne’s feelings about that war are mixed, but on the whole he thinks that the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein justify it, if not necessarily for the official reasons that the Americans have given. There may or may not be WMDs, but in his operating theater at the local hospital Perowne has seen the torture scars inflicted on Iraqis by Saddam’s regime and believes that such evil is best expunged from the face of the earth by any means possible.
McEwan’s novel is structured so that as the Saturday progresses Perowne’s awareness of the nature of evil becomes more personal, and perhaps more nuanced. He’s attacked by a street tough, first in the aftermath of a minor automobile accident and later in a more direct, terrifying way, and the final portions of the novel are about how Perowne deals with his feelings about this evil and how he should respond to it. I won’t describe what happens because it would be a spoiler for those of you who haven’t yet read the book and might want to. McEwan never really resolves the question of how one deals with evil in the world; he simply throws it into more vivid relief and demonstrates that the question is more complicated than one might suspect.
What I love about the novel, though, and what I also loved about McEwan’s Solar, is his ability to step back and look at the most deeply personal of human events with a kind of scientific objectivity. I use the word “scientific” here deliberately. McEwan clearly has a sharp layman’s knowledge of science and his surgeon protagonist is the perfect prism for viewing events through that knowledge. I gather, mostly from some things that a friend of mine has said, that not everybody loves this about McEwan, but to me it’s his awareness of the modern scientific understanding of the universe and of living creatures that makes McEwan one of the few genuinely modern literary writers. If the true dichotomy of the human condition is that we are both machines and beings with souls, that life is both mechanical and something that transcends mechanics, then I don’t see how a truly great writer can look at his or her subjects from any other perspective. It’s especially important that McEwan has made his hero a neurosurgeon — a brain surgeon — because of all the organs in the human body the brain is the one that most clearly has two completely contradictory yet simultaneously valid aspects. From an objective viewpoint, it is a bioelectric meat computer capable of stunningly advanced computation. From a subjective viewpoint, viewed not as a brain but as a mind, it is an object with an internal life, a consciousness, capable of perceiving the world not just as a set of data points but as a three-dimensional continuum with a past and a future that contain qualities — emotions, perceptions, what cognitive researchers call qualia — that are quite distinct from the sensory stimuli that create them.
It’s telling that the street tough who attacks Perowne is not doing it out of any innate evil but because of chemical changes in the brain brought about by advanced stages of premature Huntington’s disease. And throughout the novel we are aware that Perowne’s mother is slowly losing her grasp on reality because of the chemical, neural changes wrought by what seems to be late stage Alzheimer’s (though I can’t recall if McEwan ever mentions the disease by name). Both of these cases illustrate the mind-brain dichotomy, where catastrophic shifts in an individual’s subjective conscious landscape can be brought about by purely objective, chemical alterations in the delicate structures of their nervous systems.
But I’ll shut up now. It’s the very fact that McEwan is clearly aware of this dichotomy between body and soul on a concrete rather than mystical level that makes him, for me, one of the greatest writers currently working. He’s not unique in writing about the world from this simultaneously detached yet deeply engaged viewpoint, but he does it as well as just about anyone alive.