Great profile of Ian McEwan in The Observer today.
His early work conjured up a neo-gothic world of pornography, infanticide and incest. Today he is a much-loved member of the establishment – and his new novel is certain to be a bestseller. But why is Ian McEwan so far ahead of the pack?
In Saturday’s Guardian, Mark Lawson reviewed McEwan’s new novel, Saturday:
It’s odd now to think that Ian McEwan once lacked confidence as a novelist. His first two attempts at the longer form – The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers – felt like the work of a born short-story writer being stretched on a rack by his publisher and literary tradition, needing help from typeface and spacing to qualify even as novellas. But with his last but one novel ( Amsterdam ) having won the Booker Prize and the last ( Atonement ) out-selling John Grisham and Tom Clancy in some weeks’ book charts, McEwan has the swagger – the literary equivalent of a tennis player in the first tournament after winning Wimbledon – of a novelist who could do almost anything.
What he has done is Saturday, which resembles Amsterdam in sardonically examining the interior life of the contemporary middle classes but departs starkly from the century-long focus of Atonement by taking place over 24 hours, on what is supposed to be the day off of Henry Perowne, a noted London neurosurgeon.
A recent edition of Granta carried an extract from Saturday, in which Perowne drives out of Oxford in the morning to visit his brain-hazed mother. I had assumed that this was the beginning of the novel but it turns out to be page 152 of a book of less than 300 pages. It’s a measure of the level of incident in Henry’s day – and the meticulous close-stitching of McEwan’s work as a word-surgeon – that, before his Mercedes S500 reaches the Westway, en route to his mother, he has already witnessed a potential terrorist attack, discussed the Iraq war with his son, made love with his wife, come close to murder on a central London street, lost a game of squash and shopped for a fish stew.
Yet, while the novel is clearly an attempt to set down the textures of everyday life – close reading could improve your cooking, your squash game and even tip you off about what sort of kettle to buy – McEwan has larger concerns than, say, Nicholson Baker in the close auditing of The Mezzanine and Room Temperature . Saturday catalogues the local only in order to focus on the global.
For the day on which we take account of Henry is Saturday 15 February 2003. As the neuro-surgeon tries to mind his own business, hundreds of thousands of marchers are gathering in London to protest against Tony Blair’s support for the American attack on Iraq. As the background tramping and shouting begins to intrude on the quiet order of Henry’s life, it becomes clear that, if Saturday were to have another eight-letter S-word as its title, it would be Security .
By recording with such loving care the elements of one rich Englishman’s life, Saturday explores the question of to what extent it is possible to insulate yourself against the world’s concerns. Centrally heated, pension-planned, air-bag protected, permanently loved and frequently fucked by his wife, healthy and even able to give health to others, Henry lives within a protective sac of satisfaction and achievement. But, as Henry knows from his profession, such sacs are not always enough to protect against disastrous impact and, on this day of rest, he takes his hit.
The most recurrent theme in McEwan’s 10 novels is the sudden ambush of the safe and smug. Go shopping and you’ll never see your kid again ( The Child in Time ). Take a hike and the hounds of hell are just around the corner ( Black Dogs ). Fall in love and the next thing you know you’re carving up a cadaver ( The Innocent ). Go for a picnic and one man dies while a nutter claims you as his soul-mate ( Enduring Love ).
A similar external menace is pushing at Henry’s bubble. Between his uxorious love-making and his squash game, he bumps into Baxter, an aggressive driver who believes that Henry shouldn’t have been where he was. We’d think, colloquially, that Baxter needs his head seeing to and has a funny look. Neurosurgeon Perowne immediately understands the eruptions happening in the man’s skull. As Saturday (like Enduring Love ) is in part a story of suspense, a summary needs to be protective, but Baxter comes to challenge both the surgeon’s domestic instincts and his professional skills.
Most of the fictions provoked by post-9/11 politics have taken up positions as clearly as a party spokesman. But Saturday , in common with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America , is subtle enough to be taken as a warning against either intervention or against isolationism. Is the foreign policy of Henry’s government exposing him to danger, or is his moneyed, bouillabaisse-eating existence a self-delusion in a threatening world? As in the best political novels, the evidence and arguments are distributed with careful ambiguity.
The novel is inevitably and properly clearer about its position on another internal debate. Perowne, although an exemplar of the civilised upper middle classes, doesn’t believe in literature. He has no time to read and even becomes confused when his daughter Daisy, about to have her first poems published by Faber & Faber, uses the tricky jargon word “stanza”. The surgeon especially can’t see the point of novels which tell you about someone’s life in great detail. Surely it’s quite easy to note these things down and then type them out. McEwan gives Henry an even chance of victory on the squash court but, in this bit of sport about whether novels have a point, the novelist thrashes his hero in every line. In giving his central character not only a poet daughter and a father-in-law who writes verse but a wife who works at a newspaper, the writer could be accused of locating the story on home turf. But a considerable technical achievement of Saturday is that it succeeds in going inside the mind of a brain surgeon. In the early stages, there is a certain nervousness about whether the author is simply transcribing research notes – “Then he let Rodney take the lead in another burr hole for a chronic subdural” – but, by the end, there is no doubt that Perowne has the hands, eyes and thoughts of a neurosurgeon rather than a novelist.
Medical language, though, is only one of the registers in the prose. McEwan is one of the least flashy stylists of his generation, less quotable than Martin Amis or Julian Barnes, but, especially in Atonement and now this book, his voice has settled into scrupulous, sensual rhythms in which even something as simple as a 24-hour news bulletin is subject to careful choices of adjective and noun: “The synthesised bleeps, the sleepless anchor and his dependable jaw.”
In a novel of great sureness at the level of both action and language, McEwan makes one curious choice: the quotations from Daisy Perowne’s debut volume of poetry are actually published lines by Craig Raine, giving the book an additional subplot in which, beyond the plot’s call on various sections of the Metropolitan police, you expect the literary cops to arrive and arrest Daisy for plagiarism. It’s a matter of debate whether it’s the reader or the writer who is being too clever here.
For the rest of its length, though, Saturday gives no sense of McEwan’s talent taking a day off. One of the most oblique but also most serious contributions to the post-9/11, post-Iraq war literature, it succeeds in ridiculing on every page the view of its hero that fiction is useless to the modern world. The only consolation for McEwan’s contemporaries, I suppose, is that they could taunt him that he can’t seem to write short stories any more.