Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ian McEwan

I've just finished reading Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, a book I picked up because I had loved his Atonement. Saturday is a different sort of book. Halfway through, I was getting impatient because it seemed that not much had happened, and such events as had occurred, seemed random and not tied together. And this even though I have a high tolerance for slow pacing.

But then about three-quarters of the way through, McEwan began to weave his tale more tightly, and by the end, it was brilliant. Everything fit. This is a book about, essentially, life itself. Henry Perowne is a neurosurgeon who has it all: sterling professional reputation, strong marriage, riches, wonderful kids. But he lives in London in 2003, and the membrane is thin between his life and violence: street violence, the violence brewing in Iraq, the violence built into mis-copied genes. Henry slides temporarily through that membrane, and it deepens his sense of the fragility of all the good things in his life, not in a Pollyanna-ish way but in a richly complicated manner. One reviewer called this "a mature look at our world," and it is.

Read this book. And thank you, Craig, for recommending it.


dolphintornsea said...

I've read about half of McEwan's work, and most interestingly, the first two I read were the same two Nancy mentions, in the same order.

ATONEMENT is probably the most considerable of the ones I've read - certainly the most ambitious, complex and multilayered. SATURDAY impressed me somewhat less, although it is driven by the same device as all the others: a sense of impending doom, which creates terrific suspense, even when the actual events described are rather mundane.

But my favorite is ON CHESIL BEACH, his recent work which probably slots in at under the novella limit (as defined by the SFWA).

The crisis here is evident from the first half page - the principals are a newlywed couple from an era in which people weren't comfortable dealing with sex, and now they have to consummate the marriage.

The suspense is terrible, and the plight of the characters makes your toes curl with discomfiture. You just know it's going to be awful, and in this respect McEwan never disappoints.

cd said...

I found _Saturday_ movingly profound. I have to think back to records I bought when 16 to recall a similar experience of feeling, this speaks to me intimately about our time and life.

What McEwan has done is provide a truthful portrait of the liberal ideal. Perowne is the liberal hero: he demonstrates epistemic virtue (e.g., he opposes Gulf War II, but also recognizes that he's not certain it was wrong and he respects the arguments in favor of it) and existential virtue (he is never far from recognizing his own mortality and the mortality of those he loves). He does not find solace in religion, but faces his mortality and finds beauty in science and progress and justice. He discerns in science reasonable hopes for a better life. He confronts the mad attacker of his home (his own personal 9/11) with reason, finally minimal necessary violence, but then with the victory of compassion over revenge.

But I make it sound so polemical, when of course it is instead an honest and direct portrait of a day in a surgeon's life.

There is much else that is remarkable. Perowne is happy, and has a good family: this should be boring as hell, but McE makes it compelling. Also, there is a perfect sense of global culture being both close and distant, intruding but also remaining abstract and strange. The very situation we live in today, where, say, the Gulf War can be present in a few clicks, but remains somehow also an abstraction removed from our lives.

Wish I'd written it.


PS: my wife thought the home invasion was unrealistic -- her view was the inverse of yours: the beginning she found excellent, and she felt it went off the rails when the action started. That's a New Yorker fiction fan for you.