All Saturday, Perowne keeps experiencing a vague unease that never quite goes away. Is this simply the post-9/11 human condition? Or something else? When his Mercedes is damaged in that accident, he recognizes that, no matter how good the repair job, the car will never be the same. In just a moment everything can change, forever. Doctors know this better than most of us, and yet an annoyed Perowne nonetheless grouses, "Isn't it possible to enjoy an hour's recreation without this invasion, this infection from the public domain?"
That last sentence suggests one possible flaw in Saturday. At times its implied meanings may seem too explicit. This is a political novel finally, and one that appears to beat its drum a little hard at times. For instance, speaking of the protests against the invasion of Iraq, McEwan writes, "Across Europe, and all around the world, people are gathering to express their preference for peace and torture." Yet this blunt statement isn't Henry Perowne's, and McEwan remains too much an artist to fall into the purely and easily programmatic. He grants Daisy compelling arguments when she lashes out at her father for his support of war -- and when Perowne quickly admits he might be wrong, Daisy swoops in: "Then why take the risk? Where's the cautionary principle you're always going on about? If you're sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the Middle East, you better know what you're doing. And these bullying greedy fools in the White House don't know what they're doing, they've no idea where they're leading us, and I can't believe you're on their side." Perowne later ripostes, "the iPod generation" doesn't want to know about "the genocide and torture, the mass graves, the security apparatus, the criminal totalitarian state. . . . Let nothing come between them and their ecstasy clubbing and cheap flights and reality TV. But it will, if we do nothing. You think you're all lovely and gentle and blameless, but the religious nazis loathe you." And so it goes, as the war with Iraq and the threats of terrorism are examined, on multiple levels, both overtly and through analogy. Yet at the novel's greatest crisis, humane values are deemed, at least momentarily, "weakness" and "delusional folly." Is this McEwan's final message? Not precisely. He ends Saturday with an act of almost superhuman charity -- and then suggests that it might also be a form of subtle and diabolical revenge.
_____Book World Live_____
Ian McEwan will be online Tuesday, March 29, at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss "Saturday" and his other works.
_____Online Extra: Chapter 1_____
This feature allows you to read the first chapter of a new book. This week's selection is "Saturday" by Ian McEwan.
Despite all its virtues, and these include some astonishing pages of description -- close-ups of brain surgery that I could not bear to read, a heart-pounding account of a battle on the squash court -- Saturday still feels a little too artful, just a smidgen over-contrived. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of observing the dramatic unities of place, time and action: The intersection of the public and private takes on a disturbing neatness.
This is particularly so when the novel portrays the redemptive, indeed salvific power of art. At the moment when kindliness and civilization are confronted with desperation and ruthlessness, McEwan turns to a Victorian poem:
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits . . . .
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full . . .
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.