Although Henry Perowne appears to be a successful and enviable individual in most ways, with his solid career, loving marriage, gifted children, and elegant house in Central London, Ian McEwan, like any good author, wouldn’t dare construct a main character without giving him faults that not only make him real, but which spawn the narrative tension in the book.
Perowne, despite possessing the smarts required to be an expert neurosurgeon, is an unexpansive and unimaginative individual, preferring facts to fantasy (could he really be unfamiliar with Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”?) and routine to capriciousness. In fact, a significant theme in the book comes from the tension between Perowne’s routine and the disruptions to it (McEwan’s message, in short: Can anyone take comfort in routine in a post 9/11 world?).
To accentuate the tensions of Perowne’s routine on this particular Saturday, McEwan sagely decides to present the story within the confines of Aristotle’s dictum that the duration of the events represented in a tragedy should encompass not much more than a single day—choosing Feb. 15, 2003, the day when massive anti-war demonstrations took place across the world, to place the story’s actions in.
Few authors could pull off the task of constructing a plot around the ordinary Saturday routine of a relatively ordinary man, especially while delving into such interiority, but McEwan manages to make the mundane riveting. Perowne might be fundamentally lacking in lyricism, but McEwan is too focused on telling a good story to let banality interfere with suspense. He’s not about to revel in the sprawling simultaneity of Virginia Wolf or James Joyce; McEwan makes sure that Perowne’s thoughts drive the storyline, interweaving with events in a point, counterpoint style rather than existing independently and apparently randomly as the story itself. There are few, if any, arty flourishes or indulgent escapades into Perowne’s deeper consciousness. Hence the reason Saturday was a best seller.
Routine’s kissing cousin is complacency, and Perowne’s satisfaction with his life, the way he smugly sinks into the comforts of his prosperity, is the other weighty anchor of tension in the novel. He might wrestle with questions of the meaning of life, but his soul is flabby with contentedness. At the same time, McEwan is careful not to satirize Perowne for his bourgeois ways, and properly so, because this is the story of a man’s soul, which is always beyond satire.
In fact, Saturday, which can seem like an easy read on many levels, is a novel that aspires to describe what it means to be a man in the 21st century, as the epigraph quoting Bellow’s Herzog signals. The novel is about moral and intellectual engagement in the world. How does one support, acquiesce, or resist a war, and why? Are facts the only or the best way to understand the world—and with what point of reference should we judge these facts?—or do we need the trivia of fiction and art, as Perowne would describe them, to reach the deeper and more subtle nuances?
Yes, although Perowne can so aptly and almost easily solve the complex problems of neurosurgery, he is often adrift in the complex questions of life, which doesn’t allow for the sure and precise cuts of a scalpel. You can’t just slice away a tumor, clean up, and write your post-surgical report, as the messiness with the war in Iraq and the ordinary messiness of this Saturday exemplifies. There isn’t such a thing as a surgical strike.
The messiness that McEwan injects into the novel—transforming the public fear of a plane crash or possible terrorist attack, which Perowne witnesses from his window, into the private fear of an actual attack in his house—runs the risk of violating an age-old narrative rule: don’t make an external event the crisis. McEwan dodges this and substantiates the storyline by making Perowne feel complicit in Baxter’s violent intrusion into his house. He feels as if he abused his responsibility as a doctor by diagnosing Baxter during their initial flare-up after their traffic accident, which humiliated Baxter, and so he must pay for that error.
Also, McEwan is careful to form a sympathetic bond between Perowne and Baxter. They’re almost like odd lovers, fascinated and repulsed by each other. Perowne is intrigued by Baxter’s unpredictable explosiveness, the hopelessness of his life, just as Baxter is both smitten and revolted by Perowne’s comfort and seeming control over his life. This dance of sympathy and repulsion helps transform Baxter’s break-in into an internal crisis rather than an external one. Perowne’s decision to operate on him after he’s injured furthers the internal battle, especially because the reader has to wonder if he’s out for revenge or to help. It’s a valid question, not only for Perowne, but for nations like the U.S. who have been attacked. If we have the power to heal, should we seek to destroy?
Perowne seeks to heal, not simply because of his training as a doctor, but because he exhibits an ability to empathize throughout the novel. McEwan obviously believes that art is the principle way to nurture the life-affirming possibilities of empathy, but Perowne naturally possesses them, as much or more than the other characters in the story. At the same time, McEwan doesn’t present empathy as a simplistic trait which could rid the world of its predilection for destruction, for empathy itself can lead to acts of destruction. One of Perowne’s reasons to support the war in Iraq, after all, is because of the stories an Iraqi patient told him of life in Iraq. Perhaps this is where his traits of empathy and his attitude as a surgeon merge: The war is a way to impose control on the world, to slice away one of its cancers, restore health. He begins with this belief, but he doesn’t hold it at the end.
Perowne is a perfect character to represent “contemporary man,” if only because he’s beyond religious faith, condescending toward art, and places such belief in science. Still, even with such fervent trust in science’s answers, there is a part of him, usually well-buried but still accessible (as his daughter’s strident efforts to get him to read the classics attests to), that recognizes that facts aren’t enough as he operates on Baxter. “Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain’s fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious?”
Perowne begs the same question that Arnold’s “Dover Beach” does. Who are we and how do we live since “…we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
In the “ebb and flow of human misery,” the Sea of Faith has receded, leaving us to figure things out for ourselves in a world that sounds an “eternal note of sadness.”