How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
— Annie Dillard
The passage prefacing Ian McEwan’s brilliant but flawed new novel comes from Saul Bellow’s Herzog, but when reading Saturday another Bellow book comes to mind: Seize the Day. So does Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo, not to mention Joyce’s Ulysses. What all of these works have in common is that each of them takes place during the space of single day.
McEwan’s novel dutifully follows the genre’s framework: the story begins early on a Saturday morning in February, 2003, when the hero — successful neurosurgeon Henry Perowne — wakes up next to his wife, Rosalind, in their spacious London townhouse. The novel then follows Perowne throughout the day, with the novel’s end coming when the protagonist’s day finally ends early the next morning. The novel’s structure, while at times claustrophobic, also gives McEwan, an English writer who began with short books that were heavy on ennui but short on style, numerous occasions to masterfully catalog the poetically mundane bits and pieces of modern life. For instance, here McEwan describes part of Perowne’s view of the square across from his window: “He sees the paving stone mica glistening in the pedestrianised square, pigeon excrement hardened by distance and cold into something almost beautiful, like a scattering of snow.”
However, this isn’t a typical Saturday. Perowne doesn’t spend the day on the couch in contemplation, with McEwan providing meta-novel flights of fancy of the kind found in the early books of American postmodernists like Nicholson Baker and Donald Antrim. Instead, McEwan’s protagonist meets a colleague for squash, visits his mother in a retirement home, goes shopping for dinner, watches his son’s blues band rehearse, and finally runs home so he can be there when his daughter, Daisy — soon to be a published poet — arrives from Paris for a homecoming which also includes his father in-law, a famous poet himself (not to mention that, on this particular Saturday, two million people are amassing in Hyde Park to protest against the war in Iraq, then only looming on the horizon).
That the novel is comprised of various set-pieces (Perowne getting into an car accident, Perowne having a run-in with a group of thugs, Perowne losing at squash) will come as no surprise to longtime fans of the author; most of McEwan’s novels are concerned with the impact of singular moments: dogs crossing ominously on a path, a child snatched from its parent, a terrifying balloon accident in a field. Many of his books spool outward from such events, and Saturday is no different.
However, in the trip from dawn ’til dusk, Saturday tends to get bogged down with a surfeit of details. Everything in Perowne’s day, as it’s happening, has to be explained and expounded upon. A mention of his father in-law, the not-so-amusingly named John Grammaticus, leads to a three page aside on the state of modern poetry in Britain. And when discussing his son’s aspirations to be a blues musician, there is yet more exposition, facts, and details. While the final effect is like a pointillist painting that adds up to something amazing, waiting for McEwan to connect the dots becomes a little tiring.
Even though the novel doesn’t quite collapse under the weight of its structure, it does sag a bit in the middle. One of the things that made McEwan’s previous novel, the best-selling Atonement, work so well was the author’s brilliant switching back and forth between characters. The effect was like an accomplished director expertly cutting from one scene to another. But Saturday, to continue with the cinematic metaphor, feels like an expensive Hollywood movie where the star has to be on screen every second of the film. What saves the day (literally) is that McEwan is one of the most intelligent writers around, and the trips he takes the reader on in these numerous asides are almost always worth it.
And yet, despite the author’s intelligence and mastery of language, Saturday has its share of faults. McEwan’s earlier nihilism (the numbness of works like The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers) has been replaced by a warmness that seems, if not false, then at least predictable. Perowne’s fawning over his wife early in the book would seem out of place in any of McEwan’s other works from the past three decades. And while a writer’s maturity is something that is (hopefully) unavoidable, in Saturday the edges have not only been smoothed, they’re completely filed away. For instance, Perowne’s daughter is supposed to be precocious, but on the page she comes off as simply annoying. And when, late in the story (meaning, late in the day), an act of random violence threatens to shatter Perowne’s world — breaking his momentary joy of a perfect moment with his perfect family (“Whatever’s troubling him is benignly resolved”) — it seems more like a throwback to McEwan’s earlier, grittier work (the relentless scheming of Amsterdam, the nightmare finale of The Innocent) rather than where Perowne’s day is really headed.
And yet, after the phenomenal success of his previous novel, the microcosmic scope of Saturday makes sense. Whereas Atonement dealt directly with love, class, and war, McEwan’s new novel also touches on each of these things, but with a much lighter touch. The effect is slow and subtle and yet, in its cumulative power, strong and satisfying. Early in the book, while reading a biography of Darwin, Perowne feels: “ faintly depressed by the way a whole life could be contained by a few hundred pages.” In Saturday McEwan gives us in a few hundred pages — not a life — but a day, and he does it brilliantly.