Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Is it obligatory for a reader to praise literary brilliance? This peculiar question arose in my mind after reading Saturday by renowned English novelist Ian McEwan. The book is set in London and takes place on a single day, Saturday, February 15, 2003, on the date of a massive anti-war demonstration against the planned 2003 invasion of Iraq. The novel follows Henry Perowne, a 48-year-old neurosurgeon, as he goes through his day. We see Henry watch a fiery plane in the sky through a home window as it makes an emergency landing at the airport; observe the massive anti-war protest after leaving his house; get into an argument with a troubled man following a car accident; play squash with a colleague; perform surgery; and prepare dinner for a family gathering with his two adult children, wife and father-in-law.

As his day progresses, Henry thinks about the impending war (he believes Saddam Hussein is a monster and is not convinced that the war would be a bad thing); reflects on the relationship with his children and wife; wonders how human consciousness arises out of the brain; questions the validity of literature; and asks difficult questions about forgiveness. The writing is ridiculously good (one could even use the word "genius"), the themes fascinating, and the narrative structure highly original.

So why did I shrug my shoulders when I finished the book? Probably for the same reason that I shrug when I hear opera. If you go to the opera, you can't help be appreciate the incredible skill required for each performance, the theatrical presentations, and the wide range of themes that can be presented. At times, I must confess that I have been swept away by certain operatic pieces, and moved by some storylines. However, when I look at opera in general, I can't help but conclude that this is a pompous artform that takes itself way to seriously. Is this a gauche opinion? Perhaps, but it's what I think.

I had a similar feeling with this book. During several passages, I was left with the sense that I was an audience member hearing a speech by a highly intelligent man, who had done meticulous research. As the speech progressed, however, I had the sense that the "orator" was more interested in making clear how smart they were, rather than  engaging with the crowd. My favourite books are those in which the author and reader form a partnership in the telling of a story. This novel, in contrast, seemed more like a lecture than a common journey through a fictional world.

I am sure that a lot of people would disagree with this point of view. For instance, a review in the English daily The Times stated that McEwan was potentially the best novelist in Britain. It is also true that an army of English PhD students could find countless things to analyze and discuss about this book. That is why it is unsurprising that this novel, in both hardcover and paperback format, sold hundred of thousands of copies. That being said, this book did not captivate me. So to answer the question at the beginning of this review, no, it's not mandatory to fall in love with literary brilliance. Just as there is nothing wrong with disliking opera, one can shrug their shoulders when reading high-class literature. As well, for what it's worth, I would recommend a novel like Everyman by Philip Roth, rather than Saturday, if you wanted to read a meditation on the human condition.

3 out of 5 stars (if you don't like "opera")
4 1/2 of 5 stars (if you are an "opera" lover)