The Life of Brain


Ian McEwan’s Saturday is a novel of consciousness with a protagonist who literally penetrates skulls for a living. McEwan does to Henry Perowne, a London neurosurgeon, what Perowne does to his patients. But while the doctor may know a meningioma from a schwannoma, it’s the novelist who’s better equipped to tackle the cognitive mysteries of that “mere wet stuff” and conjure the “bright inward cinema of thought.” Saturday is a sly rebuke to anyone who’s ever imagined that fiction writing isn’t brain surgery.

This is not a modest book, and it buckles under its immense ambitions. Saturday
belongs to the self-consciously grand tradition of the life-in-a-day novel. What’s more, this is Saturday, February 15, 2003, the historic date that saw millions worldwide protest the imminent invasion of Iraq. You can see why McEwan was compelled to embalm the psychic chaos of that numb, jittery winter, colored by both aftermath and anticipation. His time-bombed stories are typically reeling from a calamity, creeping toward one, or both. The real world has come to resemble a McEwan novel—no wonder the author should feel obliged to engage it.

Saturday, like 1997’s Enduring Love, opens with an omen from above. In the pre-dawn hours, from the bedroom window of his posh townhouse, Perowne sees an airliner on fire. Fearing terrorism, hoping for “secular mechanical failure,” he turns on the news, and the scenario soon resolves in his favor: engine trouble, a cargo plane, no casualties. Soothed for now, he returns to bed and makes love to his lawyer wife Rosalind (the unflagging fidelity and virility of this 48-year-old man are approvingly noted throughout). The novel monitors Perowne’s mindful progress through what, with a few pulse-quickening exceptions, proves a full but fairly ordinary day: He plays squash with a colleague (for an impressively unboring 15 pages), visits his mother in a nursing home (a stark juxtaposition of sentience and senescence), and drops in on his guitar prodigy son Theo’s band rehearsal (a blues jam that occasions the most tin-eared writing in the McEwan oeuvre). No fan of books, Perowne also tries to reconcile the family’s two poets: his soon-to-be-published daughter, Daisy, and his father-in-law, a sodden literary lion named John Grammaticus.

Written in a third-person present tense, Saturday balances the disciplined momentum of its temporal march with the unruly neural networks of inner life. Perowne is a “habitual observer of his own moods,” scrutinizing his skittering mental processes with quizzical detachment. McEwan works hard to simulate this distracted introspection—the prose is a richly circuitous thicket of flashbacks and digressions, evaporating associations and abandoned lines of reasoning, the entire torrent illuminated and undermined by a dim awareness that the true shape of thought, “the pre-verbal language that linguists call mentalese,” is beyond mere syntax.

What McEwan captures best is a nagging post–9-11 unease—a disquiet so ingrained it can perversely evade conscious notice. Saturday takes place in a world where Enduring Love‘s death match between materialist reason and religious mania is intensified and diffused, part of the toxic atmosphere. But the novel stumbles in its high-handed attempt to pair global and local terror—the latter embodied by Baxter, an East End thug whose BMW collides with Perowne’s Mercedes that morning. The lurking analogies about barbarism or invasion are forced and flawed—a disappointment after the masterful perspective shifts of Atonement.

The gravest problems are political. Perowne’s positions on Iraq seem to have been assembled to facilitate a kind of mechanical Socratic monologue. A stereotypical hand-wringing bourgeois liberal, he luxuriates in a convenient ambivalence that flatters itself as complexity (he often sounds like the Republican-fabricated version of John Kerry). Perowne does not join London’s anti-war march. Having treated an Iraqi imprisoned under Saddam, he defers to the humanitarian-intervention argument and facetiously brands the peace demonstrators pro-Saddam and pro-torture. As for 18-year-old Theo, he slept in because his attitude is “so strong he doesn’t feel much need to go tramping through the streets to make his point.” If the author means this to sound smugly inane, he doesn’t let on. In any other McEwan novel, the Perownes would be lambs for the slaughter, but he instead extends them an uncharacteristic protectiveness.

The novel is most provocative as a philosophical inquiry into happiness—though even in this capacity, it tends toward a defeated conservatism. Young Theo’s tip for 21st-century anxiety management: “The bigger you think, the crappier it looks.” In several evocative passages describing Perowne at work, McEwan demonstrates that complete fulfillment occurs not when our minds are freest but most focused. So think small. Or don’t think at all. Perowne ponders the quantum conundrum of Schrödinger’s cat, stuck in a box, equally alive and dead until the lid is opened—surely an illustration of the compartmentalizing skills of the privileged Westerner, for whom faraway bloodshed ceases when the nightly news ends.

In Saturday‘s formulation, perplexing times doom us to “helplessly culpable”
inaction, and contentment is contingent
on denial. It enumerates the pleasures of
insularity—idealizing the security of home in the age of Homeland Security—and doesn’t
so much expose the dangers of this world- view as engineer its hardy triumph over an outside threat. This scans at first as arrogance, but maybe it’s benevolence. Saturday
stakes out a secular humanist notion of happiness—and fiercely defends it to the end.