We gave it a B
In the predawn darkness of a Saturday in 2003, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne looks out the upper-story windows of his enviably grand London home and sees a burning plane streak across the sky: ”Above the usual deep and airy roar is a straining, choking banshee sound growing in volume — both a scream and a sustained shout, an impure, dirty noise.” He thinks about what he can do (nothing) and eventually returns to bed with his wife, thoughts slipping easily from Saddam Hussein (”an overgrown, disappointed boy with a pudgy hang-dog look”) to his long, happy marriage (”By some accident of character, it’s familiarity that excites him more than sexual novelty”) to whether a poet has ever captured ”this commonplace cycle of falling asleep and waking, in darkness, under private cover, with another creature.”
The screaming plane, the cozy bedroom. These are the twin poles of Ian McEwan’s beautifully crafted but exceedingly schematic new novel, Saturday. As the fluid, richly textured examination of one man’s interior world over 24 hours, the book is impeccable. With his usual precision and grace, McEwan shows us an intelligent modern man thinking his way through an ostensibly ordinary day: Perowne watches the massing of an antiwar demonstration; plays an unbecomingly competitive game of squash; visits his elderly mother; reflects on a recent surgery; cooks. These mundane activities, filtered through Perowne’s highly evolved consciousness, are, in and of themselves, engrossing.
But McEwan has bigger ambitions. A traffic accident brings Perowne face-to-face with his antithesis and nemesis: Baxter, a twitching, diseased ball of rage and unthinking, destructive energy. This time, the ”impure, dirty noise” of terror will not soar past Perowne’s window but come crashing in. How will Perowne and his almost laughably civilized family — which includes a lawyer, a musician, and two poets — handle a crazed, knife-wielding Baxter? Or, to make the obvious post-9/11 leap, how do we in the liberal, enlightened West hold on to our core values when terror visits us at home?
It is impossible to read McEwan’s flinty, dread-saturated early novels — like 1981’s The Comfort of Strangers or 1987’s The Child in Time — without an almost physical apprehension of horror. Unpredictable and shape-shifting, the evil in his fiction wields terrible, erratic power over human lives and flows from a deeply mysterious source. He’s abandoned that great wellspring in Saturday, his least frightening book yet. The violent confrontation late in the narrative may be the silliest, most overwrought climax McEwan has ever cooked up. Rather than the manifestation of a dark, unknowable force — or even just an angry, complicated man with a will of his own — Baxter turns out to be the hapless puppet of a grotesque neurological condition that Perowne manages to diagnose at a glance. And even Perowne himself becomes less interesting once you understand that, from the very first page, McEwan has been grooming him for the lead in a heavy-handed parable.