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There is a moment, in the first thirty pages or so of Saturday, where possibility hangs in the air. Waking before dawn, Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, sees a flaming ball moving across the London skyline. Because this is 2003, and in particular that famous February Saturday of the anti-war protests, he jumps to an obvious and disquieting conclusion about the ball's nature and cause. But on the news there is nothing; and there is an hypernatural clarity to Perowne's vision that suggests, for a few moments, that it might not be real at all. That it might be a dream, or something else.

The moment collapses, of course. It must: Ian McEwan's novel is not about the uncertainty of the world, it's about the reality of the world, and how that reality impacts on our lives. On the other hand, the moment is deliberate, and important, because it has a consequence. When Henry discovers that the flaming aircraft, though real, was only a freight plane that had suffered an electrical failure, he cringes inwardly. He's embarrassed, as much as anything because the world caught him out, tricked him into engaging in flights of fancy. Henry is a staunch rationalist, a dedicated materialist. He doesn't have much time for dreams--'that this should be real,' he thinks, 'is a richer possibility' (p2). One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is how thoroughly Henry's beliefs colour his perceptions (in that he is interestingly reminiscent of, though less extreme than, Frank Vanderwal, the evolutionary biologist in Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain).

In fact, he has little time for art in general. His daughter Daisy, an up-and-coming poet, is shocked at his lack of literary appreciation, and feeds him books in an attempt to compensate. To Henry, however, they all seem trivial, claiming to present truths that are obvious to any observant soul. Not to mention that 'the times are strange enough. Why make things up?' (p66) (Of course his most vehement disapproval is reserved for magic realists, who Daisy studied in her final year at university: 'What were authors of reputation doing--grown men and women of the twentieth century--granting supernatural powers to their characters?' (p67)) No, as far as Henry is concerned, the reality he sees every day in the operating theatre has shown him more of life and humanity than a dozen literatures ever could.

The irony in this is obvious, because McEwan's latest novel is exactly about the abilities and limitations of literature as a means of examining the state of the world. To do this while being set on a single day, and being about a single man, it is deliberately and consciously designed. It has to be; as Henry notes, real life is not as convenient as fiction. The sense of artifice in Saturday is strong. Time stretches ('a second can be a long time in introspection', p80). Every incident in Henry's day has a significance beyond itself. Even his family is contrived, too good to be true--ridiculously privileged, absurdly talented (in addition to his own career, and Daisy's, Henry's son, Theo, is a young star of the Blues scene), and possessed, of course, of differing opinions on the looming matter of Iraq. When the climax of the novel occurs, his only thought to begin with is 'of course. It makes sense. Nearly all the elements of his day are assembled.' (p206)

Because of these things--the narrow focus, and Henry's refusal to imagine outside his own experience--there is a strong sense that a shadow hangs over the book. Everything happens in a political context; yet in one sense, it is not a strongly political novel. Henry himself is overwhelmingly ambivalent on the matter of Iraq. He's not for war but, having treated an escapee from Saddam's regime, he is not 'for peace and torture', either. When debating with his consultant anaesthetist, Jay Strauss, a genial American, Henry assumes the position of Dove; when arguing with his daughter, he finds himself becoming a Hawk. The book rehearses the familiar arguments, but never offers a firm opinion of its own. It comes close only once. Early in the day Henry has a confrontation with Baxter, an angry, unwell, unstable man; later in the day, Baxter seeks revenge. Henry muses that 'he used or misused his authority to avoid one crisis, and his actions have steered him into another, far worse. The responsibility is his' (p211). It's surely not reading too much into this to see elements of the West's responsibility in creating Saddam Hussein's regime, but at the same time the parallels are inexact, and there is plenty of room to argue that Henry is not responsible.

Perhaps, instead of being a political novel, it's a novel about engagement with politics, or a novel about political awakening. For Theo, the perilous state of the world is normal. It's what was all around him when he came of age; white noise. For Daisy, questions of right and wrong are clear and unaccountably ignored by the men running the world. Henry's own musings on global affairs are prompted by the march, and by occasional reappearances of his downed freight plane on tv screens; despite the fact that he is not deliberately engaged with the issues of the day, he cannot avoid them. And if the fantastic never makes the appearance that the opening pages suggest, however fleetingly, that it might, the appearance of the unexpected is certainly crucial to the book. Henry and his family are confronted with terror and it is, in a sense, imagination--though not Henry's--that saves the day. And it is, we suspect, a good thing that in the closing pages we start to see the neurosurgeon accept speculation as a natural part of his thoughts.

Saturday is an intriguing book. It is unarguably a novel of its time--whether it will still be as exciting in ten or even five years is very much up for debate--but within its own ambitions, it is largely a success. And yet, a day after turning the final page, I'm sitting here slightly uncertain about what the point of it all was. It wants to argue, I think, that fiction can be a tool for debate, a theatre for argument, a mirror to reflect current events. These are not things I disagree with. But there is a lingering suspicion in my mind that it is too comfortable; too unchallenging; not bold enough. The phrase that I heard China Mieville coin a couple of years ago--'premium middlebrow'--is circling this review. Is Saturday truly a good book?

Ask me in six months.

Other reviews:
peake here and here (which also points to this, very political, reading).
Tim Adams in The Observer.
Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times.
Caroline Moore in The Telegraph.
Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.
Allen Barra at Salon.
I think the real question is, if I read this will I be annoyed with you? :)
I have no idea. Do you have particularly strong feelings about Ian McEwan? :p
There was a characteristically cutting review in the Private Eye of this a few months ago. Alas, I've probably thrown it out. But it was enough to put me off reading this, and indeed most/all of McEwan.

And of course it is based far too much on Ulysses.