Monday, October 10, 2011

On Ed Champion's Review of Ian McEwan's Saturday

I finished reading Saturday Sunday. That is, I finished Ian McEwan's post-Atonement novel, and then googled the above link to read, this morning, Edward Champion's review of it upon its release in 2005. I like Champion's style: good writing, provocative analysis, controversial ideas, allusive interest. But I didn't like this review. Here's a response to some of his words.

"There's a major anti-Iraq protest tying up traffic, serving more as an inconvenience for Perowne than a revelation of the fractious political circumstances around him." -- Champion

The reviewer, as is apparent from the rest of the piece, would have been more enlightened about McEwan's purposes if he'd spent a bit more time wondering how that protest tied in with the novel's larger issues.

"And there's a modest car accident the provides the linchpin for the novel's denouement." -- Champion

The modest car accident (typically wonderful set-piece by McEwan) provides the linchpin for the novel's climax and (in union with the novel's bigger theme, Perowne's conflicted and wise suspicion of his own set ideas) falling action in the operating theatre. The denouement is all about that narrator's conscience, the car accident becoming a faded spur to a resolution having much wider implications than his relationship with a mentally ill terroriser.

"But this time around, McEwan keeps his plot twists and character revelations to a minimum, throwing in a deus ex machina for good measure." -- Champion

It's true that the characterizations, outside of Harry Perowne, are limited, though still rendered with elegance and an individual flair. There's a good reason for that which I'll elaborate on later.

The deus ex machina may seem unconvincing, as the term suggests, but one of the novel's themes, a difficult one expertly handled, is how chance can operate to terrifying momentum and force in the most comfortable lives. Think on the odds, right at the novel's outset, as Perowne watches the flaming plane, of disaster when boarding a flight. Or the odds of Baxter's destruction encoded in that one renegade gene. Or of Perowne being waved through to the side street by the cop only to collide with Baxter and gang just after they spilled out from the bar. The home invasion, after those longshots, doesn't seem so implausible in those terms. It's against the same reasoning that damned Thomas Hardy's novels as being too coincidentally bare, inexpertly contrived so's to move the plot along its rickety tracks. In Hardy's case, there's a tragic arc so chilling that those critiques seem churlish and inapposite. Greater flukes happen everyday. And in Saturday, after establishing the theme, McEwan shows great restraint. A lesser novelist would have used the set-up as the perfect excuse to go the way of maudlin horror or metafictional gymnastics.

"In prioritizing consciousness instead of a series of events, McEwan has made himself more vulnerable to exposing his very few flaws." -- Champion

I saw it somewhat differently. The only notable flaw I found in the novel is that Perowne's consciousness violently stanched the flow of narrative shock.

"He is a passive observer. One might argue that he isn't a particularly lucid one." -- Champion

Huh? Observation by definition is passive, but only in that it can precede action. Effective action is usually precipitated by shrewd, even pitiless, observation. Think of the connections with Perowne's highly successful neurosurgery career. As for "lucid", yes, Perowne is presented as having a dreamy nature. The opening scene at the window shows this to mesmerising effect. But he's only dreamy in patches. He recovers quickly, as in the conversation with the woman he's just met in surgery (who would become his wife). Perowne's more complex than Champion's thumbnail-ridge sketches would indicate.

"He keeps to himself, relegating his social life to squash games with co-workers and dreamy morning booty calls with his wife." -- Champion

This is conveniently reductive. The novel spans one day in his life. It's a very active day, at that. Champion even misses some of the events of the day. How about his trip to visit his senile mother? Family, of course, but it's a social visit. Or his social visit to watch his son play the new blues tune? Outside of this day, he also runs marathons, follows up with patients with proactive, non-professionally motivated interest, and may have other social avenues not disclosed outside the time constraints of the novel. And since Champion brought up the "booty calls" -- disgusting term for a fearless depiction of loving sex between he and Rosalind, especially the second coupling near the book's close -- that means all family union can be included. Perowne's the opposite of "keeping to himself" with his family; he needs frequent and meaningful congress with his wife and son, and is overjoyed with daughter Daisy's visit. He neglects father-in-law John, but that's because of personality conflicts, not intimacy issues. Even here, the denouement brings a touching, believeable resolution.

"He's a neurosurgeon close to 50 who barely stirs in the operating theater, concentrating exclusively on the surgery at hand. He complains of other people going "nowhere without a soundtrack," yet insists on Barber's "Adagio for Strings" to be played over and over during the final stages of an operation." -- Champion

His complaints of the young have everything to do with a lack of concentration. He's most alive when under supreme concentration: making love, and operating. The text makes it clear that Perowne is completely focussed on the long brain operation. He loses track of the specific musical development in Barber's piece, yet at the same time is infused with its mood. This is perhaps complex for some to understand; I don't find it to be so. The people "going nowhere without a soundtrack" are in no way alike. Their music is a distraction. If they were to turn it off, they would have to actually observe -- you know, that "passive" stuff that Champion denigrates. They would have to find something to be passionate about in total concentration.

"With the character so married to his work and so casually misanthropic." -- Champion

This is the most cynically egregious statement in the review. First, he's not married to his work. He's passionately, faithfully married to his wife of twenty-five years. He loves his work, but also loves his family. Despite my previous statements, he doesn't have a magpie's fascination or involvement with the world. But when you're digging two deep wells, there's not a lot of time left over.

Misanthropic? A surgeon who talks with great sympathy of his patients post-op, and with care of those patients with his surgeon-friend Jay. Who feels guilt in two instances over his conduct after seeing the plane in flames, and turning the tables on Baxter in the street, and where no misanthropic spirit held. Christ, he operated on the disturbed man who, an hour before, had threatened to kill his entire family.

"Perowne may serve as an apt persona for McEwan himself. In expressing middle age so strenuously, Saturday might serve as a rhetorical novel for whether McEwan believes his work holds any relevance for people under the age of 40. That's an odd idea coming from a novelist who has repeatedly demonstrated his universal relevance." -- Champion

Or he may just be examining the binding similarities between young and old, accomplished and mentally shattered, an emigrant from Iraq and one England born. Proof? The tender conversation between the doctor and the fourteen year old who wants to be a neurosurgeon after she's been operated on by Perowne; the conversation between Perowne and the man who reveals to him the pervasive reality of terror under Saddam Hussein's rule, and how even the torturers were to varying degrees exempt from blame seeing as how their own lives were on the line from supervisors themselves marked by higher-ups in a never-ending chain of fear and confusion; and the brilliant depiction of the similarity between Perowne and Baxter with the theme of stupid pride, Perowne and Jay becoming ever more testy in their squash game (wonderful heart-accelerating section of the novel), and Baxter becoming infuriated, upon reflection, with loss of face to Nigel and the other friend in the alley when with Perowne. Nothing to do with age; everything to do with more universal concepts of human make-up and shortcoming.

"Other critics have made comparisons between Saturday and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway." -- Champion

Fascinating for English profs, perhaps, but the details Champion provides don't apply directly to Saturday. Woolf's novel is extremely subjective, the world (as I remember Mrs Dalloway from many years ago) only existing as a dream extension of the narrator's interiority. McEwan shifts between the inner and outer with equal concern and force.

"Such is the curse of tying a novel so explicitly to one man's consciousness: the important details that Perowne catastrophically ignores are also ignored in the text. McEwan might have had a better novel had he dared to think outside of Perowne's taut box." -- Champion

Champion again reveals his misunderstanding. McEwan concentrated on Perowne's consciousness because he wanted to make a point about how ideas solidify, and how they can perhaps unravel or loosen with luck, grace, and persistent observational courage.

"Baxter himself drives a BMW, also an expensive car. Is there a correlation between these two men? Absolutely. Yet while Perowne's past is muddled with a passive swagger (he's described as being pitiless several times), McEwan shies away from comparing these two, preferring instead to keep Baxter's description confined to Perowne's speculations and their respective identities separate from each other." -- Champion

I've just described how McEwan joins the two in the theme of pride. But Baxter's impetus is described through action. Narrative action is often more revealing of character, certainly more poetically and dramatically so. There is no need to go into Baxter's consciousness. And how would that work, anyway? Not every author has the talent of Faulkner describing Benjy from within. And here it's not necessary. Baxter's frequent shifts in emotion show how his fevered mind operates.

"Why, for example, does McEwan spend so much time chronicling a banal political dialogue between Perowne and his daughter on whether the United Kingdom should get involved with Iraq? Does he want to memorialize the kind of hollow cocktail party banter that shows no sign of abating four years after September 11?" -- Champion

Firstly, McEwan began the novel in 2002. 9/11 was a hot topic, not a rehash, "cocktail party banter". (And how would this disparaging description apply? Daisy and Perowne get into the argument reluctantly on the latter's part, and the scene is there to show the greater theme of ideas in self-examination, how ideas are often provisional, and how fate, that oddsmaker again, can explain why many people hold the opinions they do, as in Perowne's encounter with the Iraqi emigrant.) Also, the conversation is anything but hollow. It may not be scintillating political discourse, but it's intelligent, and represents vividly how both sides on the Iraq war thought about that (then) impending decision. The novel is set just before the bombing, remember, not in 2005.

Champion then throws in a few faint bouquets in an attempt to avoid his own characterization of
"bitter book critics or outright lunatics [who] may be pining for a scabrous takedown", but it's clear, at least to this Saturday lover, that the reviewer missed living in this particular day by several years.


Zachariah Wells said...

I did a seminar presentation on Saturday for a class last year. I also held up Champion's review as an almost perfect misread of the novel.

Brian Palmu said...

Would have enjoyed hearing it.

Zachariah Wells said...

I'll send you the text; your MSN account still good?

Brian Palmu said...

Yep. The same. Thanks.