It has become popular to mourn the passing of ‘community’ and ‘society’ as the juggernaut of global capitalism crushes all before it. I must confess to having indulged in that pastime myself. But on deeper reflection could it not be possible that the seeming inevitability of personal atomisation is a good thing, or if not actually good, then at least a necessary stage in our collective human development? Could it not be argued that to stand naked, free of all the idiocy of religion, nation, race and tribe, in front of an uncaring, unblinking universe, is the real starting point of human adulthood? To be forced to find meaning in a meaningless universe, without recourse to gods, divine or supernatural, is perhaps the hardest task of all. To take comfort and joy in the mere wonder of it all, and to celebrate the staggering uniqueness and sheer mathematical improbability of human consciousness. Could this not be the real starting point of the human journey? A blank canvass where we are free to paint a trillion adventures unencumbered by ancient superstitions and religious and political dogmas. Somehow I suspect that Ian McEwan’s wonderfully drawn character, Henry Perowne, in his quite brilliant novel ‘Saturday’, is taking us precisely in this direction. Perowne has his work, his family and his political and existential angst. And in one single day we are witness to Perowne’s every conflicted thought. And we the reader are privileged to watch  McEwan interweave Perowne’s tormented and conflicting thoughts with consummate ease.

This is my sort of novel. An easily imagined act of road rage becomes a metaphor for today’s global politics, where a single aggressive confrontation can have  some very unexpected and violent repercussions. In modern day parlance, the seemingly benign act of ‘liberal intervention’ can result in some very nasty blowback. Ever since the first Iraq war under George Bush Senior, that blowback has been getting more intense. Now, as we witness the third Iraq intervention, that blowback is getting even more intense, even more unpredictable. ‘Saturday’ takes place on the eve of the second Iraq intervention and McEwan, via his central character, cleverly explores all the grim scenarios that we have now all seen played out in real life. How prophetic McEwan has turned out to be. And all the political anxiety that Perowne is feeling on the eve of the second Iraq war is but a reflection of our general anxiety about how the world is unfolding. McEwan puts it so well;

‘He takes a step towards the CD player, then changes his mind for he’s feeling the pull, like gravity, of the approaching TV news. It’s a condition of the times, this compulsion to hear how it stands with the world, and be joined by the generality, to a community of anxiety.’ P176

‘A community of anxiety’. That is a powerful piece of imagery that somehow permeates the entire novel. Not just an anxiety with things political but an overwhelming anxiety with life itself. No religion for comfort, no patriotism to get wrapped up in. All that has been stripped away, and a good thing too. But in its place is an overarching emptiness just waiting to be filled. But with what? With cynicism, with despair or suburban consumerism and family dramas? What should we fill our Saturday’s with before all our busy Saturdays turn to dull and predictable Sundays and the dotage that inevitably comes with it? McEwan asks these sort of questions throughout.

There are so many haunting passages that creep into the narrative without in any way seeming contrived. Ah, the art of the great novelist. We learn of Perowne, the eminent neurosurgeon, that here is a man that must find meaning and purpose without the usual props;

‘Even as a child, he never believed in fate or providence, or the future being made by someone in the sky. Instead, at every instant, a trillion, trillion possible futures, the pickiness of pure chance and physical laws seemed like freedom from the scheming of a gloomy god.’ P128

And on the very same theme McEwan adds;

‘The primitive thinking of the supernaturally inclined amounts to what his psychiatric colleagues call a problem, or an idea of reference. An excess of subjectivity, the ordering of the world in line with your needs, an inability to contemplate your own unimportance. In Henry’s view such reasoning belongs to a spectrum at whose far end, rearing like an abandoned temple, lies psychosis.’

Or as Richard Dawkins would put it, ‘A God Delusion’.

McEwan, via his Henry Perowne, asks many questions and deliberates on many aspects of our human condition but perhaps the most poignant of all, certainly from the point of view of a surgeon of the brain, is the most telling of all questions; ‘ Could it ever be explained how matter becomes conscious?’ I guess there are three ways of dealing with such a question; either wrap yourself up in religious obscurantism; refuse to engage with the question at all; or embrace and celebrate the question as a ‘known unknown’ along with all the rest of big universal stuff. By adopting the latter path, which I imagine Ian McEwan tends to do, one can sit back and enjoy ones brief moment of consciousness without recourse to myth, superstition and quackery. Henry Perowne comes across as just such a man. A man for our times and ‘Saturday’ is most definitely a novel for our times.

End JPK copyright 1/11/14

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 02 November 2014 15:28 )