A Not So Typical Day

Literature is no stranger to narratives that are dictated by the flow of time. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Manlio Argueta’s One Day of Life and the more contemporary Robert Langdon series all prolifically used the entire span of 24-hours to produce engrossing narratives. Their authors masterfully captured the nuances of a day. They have also underlined how one ordinary day can be the microcosm for a wealth of activities. 24 hours, or even less, is enough to accomplish many things.

British wordsmith Ian McEwan took the same approach of relying on a 24-hour frame  in coming up with his ninth novel, Saturday. The novel chronicles the events in the life of 48-year-old Londoner Henry Perowne one Saturday, February 15, 2003. To the renowned neurosurgeon, it was supposed to be an ordinary day which he plans to spend visiting his senile mother, and playing squash with his friend. A doting father and husband, he planned to culminate the day by cooking dinner for his family.

A professional success translated well into a relatively comfortable and domestic life for Perowne. He enjoys a wide array of privileges that come along with belonging to the upper middle class. He is married to Rosalind, a lovely, and equally capable spouse with whom he is still remains deeply in love. Their nearly quarter of a century marriage was capped by two successful and attractive children – Daisy, a budding poet who is about to publish her first collection of poetry, and Theo, a musical virtuoso set on conquering the blues music scene.

“There’s a taste in the air, sweet and vaguely antiseptic, that reminds him of his teenage years in these streets, and of a general state of longing, a hunger for life to begin that from this distance seems like happiness.” ~ Ian McEwan, Saturday

Whilst Perowne enjoys the comforts of a contented life, a massive demonstration is taking place in another part of the city. People has gathered to express their outrage against United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. In his car en route to meeting his friend, Perowne contemplates on the series of unfortunate events that has inevitably led to these protests. His deep rumination was disrupted by a collision with another car. What was supposed to be a domestic and typical Saturday took a slightly dangerous turn.

On the surface, McEwan innocently captured the picture of a quotidian existence. Interwoven into the narrative are astute observations of domestic tasks and activities. The venture into the seemingly normal rendered the novel a universal and profound complexion. McEwan underlined how daily and mundane tasks and our interactions with the people around us sustain us. The provide joys we find in the ordinary – whether in the interactions between father and children or between spouses, or achievement of harmonies in music, or the mere performance of one’s profession – provide us a sanctuary. From these spring happiness, and, inevitably, contentment.

Saturday is often referred to as a post-9/11 narrative for its take on terrorism and the United States-Iraqi situation. By using the February 15, 2003 protest as a backdrop for the narrative, McEwan provided a solid fabric upon which the rest of the narrative was laid out. The buzz and the repeated references to the massive political demonstration provided background noises to Perowne’s day, leading him to ponder on the politics involving the September 11 attacks and the ensuing war waged against Iraq.

Despite his deep political ruminations, Perowne viewed the entire situation from an angle of indifference. This indifference led him to weigh the situation from both sides of the spectrum. The narrative is also rife with several discourses of political nature. Whilst he recognized his children’s strong sentiments against the political atmosphere, Perowne remained largely apathetic towards the entire situation. This situation provided the narrative with its own flow, one man’s ordinary day set against a grand historical narrative.

“There are these rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they’ve ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything to others, but lose nothing of yourself.” ~ Ian McEwan, Saturday

McEwan enriched the narrative by incorporating literary touchstones, particularly through Daisy who is a young poet. Her father, however, is her antithesis, choosing to anchor his existence in a real world rather than a “made-up world”. Perowne strongly dismissed some facets of modern literature. He voiced subtle but sly remarks on various literary genres. Perowne referred to magical realism as a“sort of escapism” and “out of touch with reality.” Daisy, nonetheless, fervently prescribed reading lists to him in the hope of enlightening him. Unfortunately, even literary classics by Tolstoy and Flaubert did not, in the least, make a dent on Perowne’s adamant facade. Disdain for young adult fiction was also expressed by John Grammaticus, Daisy’s grandfather who happens to be another poet.

The ultimate paradox in Perowne’s disdain for literature is that his daylong preoccupations provided materials and elements for what is a nuanced and carefully measured modern literary piece. Saturday succeeded in ridiculing the usefulness, rather the uselessness of fiction, in the contemporary world. It certainly didn’t prevent the Iraqi war from materializing. What it does, however, is to capture the intersections of our personal lives and the grand historical narrative.

But literature still An example of the power literature possesses was captured in the narrative’s explosive climax. A potentially catastrophic evening was stymied by the unlikely recitation of a poem. Whilst the entire episode is masked in an atmosphere of incredulity, it nonetheless underlined the transformative impact of literature, and art in general. The exaggeration and the artifice of the entire spectacle raises the question of reality. The story concluded with a moral dilemma

The story, on its own, sounded simple but it was McEwan’s ability to capture the seemingly mundane and transform it into rich text that made the novel  flourish. He has such understated but efficient writing style that singly propelled the narrative and its various themes with clarity. The medical aspects of the narrative remained largely on the peripheries of the narrative. It didn’t, however, water down the atmosphere of the story nor did it alter its overall texture.

“When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in-you know, a girl I’ve just met, or this song we’re going to do with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto – think small.” ~ Ian McEwan, Saturday

Its political nature pervaded most of the narrative. But its take on literature and the role it plays elevated the narrative. Both subjects and themes were significantly touched on. However, the central figure in the narrative is Henry Perowne who gave the story a distinct texture. He grapples with the realities of the world and the place he has in it. He is averse to literature, He is an atheist neurosurgeon who prefers his world to be grounded on facts and the truth rather than the imagined and the invented.

Saturday is a thought-provoking piece that touches on a score of profound subjects. It is a sublime narrative that was built on the seemingly mundane. He effectively used intimate spaces in order to deliver a superb narrative. In finding value in the ordinary, McEwan produced a deeply personal tale.

Ratings:

78%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

Saturday is my third venture into Ian McEwan’s literary ensemble. Atonement and On Chesil Beach, both historical fiction, gave me my first McEwan experience. Saturday, however, is an entirely different beast as it is more contemporary. One thing stands out despite this – McEwan is a paragon of modern literature. His measured but vivid prose exhibited in Saturday is one of the reasons why I was engrossed with the work. The story sounds simple but it was McEwan’s ability to capture the seemingly mundane and transform it into rich text that made the novel stand out for me. He has such understated writing style and it worked.

Book Specs

Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publishing Date: April 2006
Number of Pages: 289
Genre: Psychological Fiction

Synopsis

In his triumphant new novel, Ian McEwan, the bestselling author of Atonement, follows an ordinary man through a Saturday whose high promise gradually turns nightmarish. Henry Perowne – a neurosurgeon, urbane, privileged, deeply in love with his wife and grown-up children – plans to play a game of squash, visit his elderly mother, and cook dinner for his family. But after a minor traffic accident leads to an unsettling confrontation, Perowne must set aside his plans and summon a strength greater than he knew he had in order to preserve the life that is dear to him.

About the Author

To learn more about Ian McEwan, click here.