Set in London on February 15, 2003, when millions gathered to protest the Iraq war, Ian McEwan’s Saturday is entirely in the present tense. Henry Perowne, 48, springs out of bed at 4 a.m. so effortlessly that one can’t help but be filled with foreboding. Sure enough, within pages, Perowne is watching a flaming jet descend over London, particularly terrifying in the post-9/11 present, when “words like ‘catastrophe’ and ‘mass fatalities,’ ‘chemical and biological warfare’ and ‘major attack’ have recently become bland through repetition.”
But nothing happens. Perowne retreats into his London townhouse and impeccable life. His wife, still asleep, is a successful lawyer; his daughter, a soon-to-be published poet; his son a dutiful rock star. His own career — cutting into human brains with precision — is stellar. The sense of malaise, however, is never fully shaken.
Like McEwan’s Amsterdam, Atonement and Enduring Love, Saturday turns on a single event that forever alters its characters’ lives. The surreal crisis of the entire Perowne family is the book’s climax, a micro-9/11 that forces them to realize just how fragile their prosperous equilibrium is. But the source of the crisis is external. The Perownes’ London townhouse is without a single skeleton in the closet, and the guiltless Perownes are genuinely free of pathologies. McEwan may persuade (some) readers to believe in his harmonious little clique, but as a social allegory, his image of family life is hard to swallow.
Henry Perowne is nothing if not acutely self-aware. Blessed with both an articulate consciousness of his personal gifts and a doctor’s sensitivity to the fragile metabolism of his complex city and society, Perowne is a man happily committed to his present. He relishes making love to his wife of 25 years and living in a wealthy Western democracy, without taking either for granted. He scoffs at trendy postmodern doubts: “If the present dispensation is wiped out now, the future will look back on us as gods, certainly in this city, lucky gods blessed by supermarket cornucopias, torrents of accessible information, warm clothes that weigh nothing, extended lifespans, wondrous machines.” Some will enjoy these highbrow musings, others will be dismayed to find that they never stop: Perowne’s witty analysis of contemporary life continues even in the shower.
Matthew Arnold, another great humanist, reflected on the modern present that his society was entering, albeit with a healthy dose of uncertainty about what the future held. Arnold is Saturday’s hero (and not just spiritually, the poet himself has a key cameo); but the modern Western society that Henry Perowne celebrates has advanced 150 years into middle age. McEwan’s London is a city enjoying a comfortable prime, where “even the overfull litter baskets suggest abundance rather than squalor,” and all the possibilities of modern capitalism’s affluence have been fully realized. For a book about the present, Saturday is less concerned with current events than with middle age itself.
This is the case even when McEwan makes Perowne’s mind a forum for the constant rehearsal of the moral difficulties involved in taking a stance on current affairs in the Middle East. Perowne, in his ambivalence about the war in Iraq, is tacitly superior to the pro- or anti-war partisans. McEwan brilliantly depicts the thinking man’s predicament: Perowne sits for hours on the sofa absorbed in newspapers, heroically. But despite all his conscientious deliberation about outcomes, Perowne is never troubled by the inevitability of the war.
To be fair, Daisy Perowne is allowed a few intelligent critiques of her father’s (anti-) politics. But Saturday’s children are poets and musicians, their protest a self-indulgent exercise in sloganeering, their postmaterialism a product of growing up in abundance. They’ll soon forget their facile political convictions, or grow out of them. We learn to pay attention to the precious richness of the familiar in maturity, and McEwan’s Saturday is similarly preoccupied with the near and dear.
Unfortunately, equanimity makes for better novels than politics. Not a radical at 20, no heart; still a radical at 40, no brain, as they say. Saturday has been dubbed “a brainy book,” and it is. It’s often much more, stunning in its prose, subtle in its views of “domestic” life. But Matthew Arnold is a more sympathetic writer for those whose stake in the present is the future: “Calm’s not life’s crown, though calm is well. / ’Tis all perhaps which man acquires / But ’tis not what our youth desires.” Younger readers may well put down Saturday unmoved, feeling with some trepidation that this is one novel we’ll someday grow into.