Revisiting Ian McEwan’s Saturday
by Jacob Soule (Auburn University)
Ian McEwan published not one but two books in 2019 alone: The Cockroach, a heavy-handed satirical take on Brexit and its political machinations, and Machines Like Me. The latter reimagines a 1980s Britain in which technological advances are beyond that of our own moment, and, in a remarkably specific counterfactual historical analogy, Tony Benn is leader of the opposition. The novel was summed up by Ian Patterson as embodying McEwan’s “fear of riots and the far left”. This is hardly a surprise, since McEwan is on record, in perfect horseshoe fashion, decrying both the street-thuggery of the far right, and the “Leninist … paranoid court” of Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle. That McEwan’s rewriting of the 1980s would focus so intently on something as specific as the identity of the leader of the opposition speaks to a barely latent anxiety evident across McEwan’s writing — an anxiety that pervades centrist political discourse. This, of course, is the fear of irrelevance. For the great highpoint of centrist politics was the Blair–Brown years, and without Benn’s stifling within the party it is highly likely, to this mindset at least, that Blair’s “modernization” project could never have gained ascendency. Conducting McEwan’s thought-experiment in 2019, it isn’t hard to grasp the point that we are at a similar axis, and the fate of centrist politics hangs in the balance.
Centrism, as David Graeber has recently argued in a dissection of the 2019 election, is the political wing of the professional class, and its mantra is above all “proceduralism”; the best course of action is always the one that is most in step with market signals, (selective) scientific research, and, above all, competent administration. In Britain, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in 2015, the 2016 referendum, and the accompanying rightward cultural drift of the Conservative party post-David Cameron have all contributed to centrism being flung into an internal crisis. Under these circumstances, centrism has become identifiable in a new way, as antagonists on either side have attempted to dislodge it from position. So jostled, centrists have been forced to fight for their centrality, and in doing so have become more unified and visible, but also more parochial and partisan — precisely where they do not want to find themselves.
This article claims that this wider political formation (and deformation) of centrism within the last two decades can be more thoroughly articulated by examining its cultural expressions. The novel’s relationship with liberalism has long been taken for granted, such that every crisis of the liberal order has an accompanying crisis-of-the-novel discourse. And yet, despite centrism’s close affinity with liberalism, in order to understand its specific contours and contradictions, there is a need for a constant updating of the novel’s imbrication within contemporary political ideologies. And no accounting of the political centre’s literary and cultural mediations would be complete without Ian McEwan, a novelist who has shown remarkable permanence as the pinnacle of a specifically English, middlebrow literary culture. As the journalist Janan Ganesh observed in a column for the Financial Times, titled “Why Ian McEwan speaks for England”, “no other novelist is more present in our public life”.
Rather than study McEwan’s most recent literary output and political commentary, however, I want to instead look back to his novel Saturday (2005), which combines McEwan’s familiar hand wringing about rationality and science with carefully placed scenes of London’s Iraq War protests (the primal scene of contemporary political fissures). I want to suggest that this novel, with its treatment of the tension between its protagonist’s expertise and a fundamentally unknowable underclass, expresses at a critical juncture the spirit of centrism as we know it today, revealing its internal anxieties at a critical moment in its unravelling.
Saturday recounts a day in London on 15 February 2003, the day of the Iraq War protest. It is told from the perspective of Henry Perowne, a prominent neurosurgeon. Perowne’s day of respite is disrupted by an automobile incident involving a petty criminal named Baxter, who later returns to Perowne’s family home to enact his revenge for the damage to his car, first by forcing Perowne’s daughter to undress and then by holding a knife to his wife’s throat. Henry heroically subdues Baxter by promising a cure for the hereditary neurological disease that he has diagnosed by observing Baxter’s outward behaviours (tremors and a quick temper). So distracted, Baxter is pushed down the stairs by Henry’s son, knocking him unconscious. The novel ends with Perowne operating on his aggressor’s brain, curing the latter of his disease, and magnanimously declining to press charges. Around this central narrative swirl the sensory impressions and the fleeting thoughts of Perowne as he travels around central London in his car among the anti-war protestors, plays squash with a colleague, visits his mother who is suffering with Alzheimer’s, and prepares a meal for his family. Despite the melodrama of its plot, the novel is not exactly plot-driven, instead providing a scientifically-inflected stream of consciousness as Perowne considers subjects ranging from the Iraq War, terrorism, the difference between the scientific and the literary mind, and so on, all of which Henry is prone to analyzing in relation to his career as a neurologist: “there is much in human affairs that can be accounted for at the level of the complex molecule” (92).
Saturday is an exemplary novel in McEwan’s oeuvre because it reflects two broad preoccupations of his literary career: the maddening chaos of the world invading the private lives of his protagonists, and a faith in the rational mind to withstand it and overcome it. In Saturday, there is a much-cited moment where Perowne’s son explains to his father his mantra for coping with the turmoil of the post-9/11 world: “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 […] it looks great. So this is going to be my motto — think small” (35). John Banville — in a withering review of the novel that departed from the dominant reception of it — felt that this could also be the motto of Saturday. Certainly, the novel’s style, made up as it is of small moments and impressions (comparisons to Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway abound) conforms to this overarching idea.
The novel’s setting up of this opposition of scales, between the incrementally small, and the bewilderingly big, corresponds to the political opposition alluded to earlier between the left’s demand for structural change and centrist proceduralism. Thus the significance of the inclusion of the Iraq war protests as the backdrop of the novel. Against what Martin Ryle has described as Perowne’s “tentative progressivism” (32), the protestors stand in for a rejection of the world as it is, and for a politics of conviction and non-compromise. For Perowne, the protestors make the error not of opposing the war per se, for he himself is hesitant about it, but of being absolute in their opposition: “Perowne can’t feel, as the marchers themselves probably can, that they have an exclusive hold on moral discernment” (73). Perowne worries the marchers haven’t taken Sadaam Hussein’s crimes seriously enough, that without the invasion torture will continue and the Kurds will be obliterated, and so on. But he also feels that there is a strategic error at the heart of the UK/US strategy, that the invasion will destabilize the region. In such both-sidesism one feels a covering of tracks, a resistance to being caught out by any turn of events. If the invasion is a disaster, Perowne is vindicated; if it rids the world of a brutal dictator, he is also vindicated. If it does both? Vindicated. Crucially, though, he does not have to attend the march to eventually be proven right by history.
The novel’s positioning of Perowne as neither warmonger nor anti-war activist has significant ramifications for its politics, a politics it turns out that has nothing to do with the specific issues surrounding the Iraq War. For as Ryle has observed in his astute reading of the novel, the fundamental politics of Saturday is a class politics. There are, by my count, three character groupings: Perowne and his family of comfortable upper-middle class professionals (his wife is a libel lawyer), the protestors themselves, and then what can only be described as a series of sketches of “ordinary people”. The protestors, never earning any fullness of description, are not a class in themselves per se, but are rather an amorphous grouping of vaguely conceived “young people”. But there is a strategic necessity on McEwan’s part to Perowne’s separation from the marchers in his car, for it is the existence of the marchers which allows for his unmediated encounters with these ordinary men. Driving away from the protestors, Henry first catches the eye of a policeman regulating the flow of traffic, which he imagines as “a little drama of exchange between a firm but apologetic policeman and the solemnly tolerant citizen” (78). Subsequently, he sees a street-sweeper, a “pink-faced man of about his own age” with whom he shares “a vertiginous moment … as though on a seesaw with him, pinned to an axis that could tip them into each other’s life” (73-74). This prompts Perowne’s thoughts to wander back to the protestors and their ambitions for social transformation, against which is now pitted the honest work of the sweeper, whose diligent, attentive labour Perowne admires for reminding him that “the world must improve, if at all, by tiny steps” (74). The gulf between protestor and street sweeper, between political radicalism and the needs of ordinary people, can only be resolved by the mediatory work of Perowne.
Finally, there is the confrontation with Baxter, the petty criminal who in the novel’s climatic scene will break into Henry’s house and terrorize his family. After two encounters which promise a connection, but ultimately keep class barriers intact, the collision with Baxter’s car, and the subsequent violent beating that Baxter dishes out, provide the “tipping” of that “axis” that the previous two encounters only promised (or, perhaps, threatened). Of course, Baxter’s hostility to Perowne could very well be taken as a harsh reminder to the latter that whatever his sense of affinity with the policeman and street-sweeper, the feeling is not mutual on the other side of the social divide. But to take this as the ultimate message of the novel, as being a critique of Perowne’s enclosure in his own self-satisfied world, misses the more profound takeaway that McEwan seems (consciously or not) to want his readers to grasp. Before departing the scene of the accident, Baxter refers to the marchers as “Horrible rabble. Sponging off the country they hate” (89). This makes Baxter the third in succession of Perowne’s encounters with the “everyman” who has, or is assumed to have, a disdain towards the protests. The policeman had looked at him in such a way that “suggests he himself would have bombed Iraq long ago, and many other countries besides” (78). The street-sweeper, though not imagined to so obviously evince the jingoistic politics of Baxter or the cop, is nevertheless subtly opposed to the protestors’ project, with his diligent, honest work contrasted with the latter’s naïve utopianism. All three of these men, then, are written in such a way as to suggest their weary disdain for, or indifference to, the politics of the march.
This collision between the novel’s plot and its context is where its most profound concerns and preoccupations come to the fore. We never hear anything about Baxter’s politics again, and to suggest that McEwan is endorsing his chauvinism would be to overlook what an obviously pathological character he is. But this is precisely the point. Saturday is an early iteration of a “politics of authenticity” that has pervaded centrist discourse and remains, I would argue, its central motivating force. The great obsession of the centrist project has been, and remains, the reconciliation of a social and cultural conservatism on the part of an imagined white working class with the nominal political progressivism of the technocratic elite. This has always been the presumed triumph of the New Labour project, which as Stuart Hall noted was a temporarily successful combination of “old Labour” values and traditions (embodied in the figure of John Prescott) with Blair’s modernization project (Hall: n.pag.). Every centrist dreams of returning to this moment of unification, and it is precisely the Iraq War that undid it — between 1997 and 2005 Labour lost some five million votes. And yet these political developments have not put a stop to the authenticity discourse but only intensified it. As Joe Kennedy’s marvelous study Authentocrats has shown, the centre-left in the UK has merely reverted to the argument that it was the far-left’s inability to recognize the “legitimate” concerns of the working class around immigration that led to the protest vote of 2016.
That Saturday, at the very precipice of New Labour’s decline, throws a well-meaning member of the professional class into conflict with a crudely drawn expression of white working class rage, only to resolve this conflict in the interests of both parties, suggests a remarkable conformity with this worldview. Perowne quite literally cures Baxter of his pathology, and returns to the fold of domestic bliss, ending the novel back in bed with his wife, just where the novel began. We can imagine by implication that as Perowne operates on Baxter’s brain he also removes whatever diseased neurology not only caused his violent outbursts, but also his aggressive chauvinism. The protesters, with their lack of “tolerance”, their strict adherence to their cause, failed to convert Baxter to a gentler politics. But Perowne, armed with his sensitive diagnostic powers, is able to get through to him.
To read Saturday in the current context, and in light of the Brexit vote in particular, is to understand something of the pathology that now invades the collective neurology of UK centrists. Betrayed by the very imagined subjects they believed their project was designed to serve, they are left with little political purpose. Suddenly, with the new schisms in politics between remain and leave, they find themselves as partisan as the Iraq war protesters. As Banville noted in his review, more than any other of McEwan’s works Saturday seems oddly intent on a happy ending that resolves the crisis it sets in motion. It is remarkable, by any novelistic standards, for a drama like this to unfold without any sacrifice on the part of its characters, and for the restoration of an equilibrium to be so insistently total. It is as if the novel is aware of the precariousness of its fantasy of class reconciliation, and therefore must insist all the more fervently on it. Saturday, rather than the calm, confident expression of a centrist worldview at its height, should be seen as the beginning of an increasingly hysterical breakdown of that worldview.
McEwan’s continued centrality as the most prominent chronicler of our increasingly turbulent political landscape, thus speaks to the persistence of a literary impasse that was identified by Zadie Smith in her now much celebrated 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel”. Smith was alert to the fact that the world order of the 1990s was ending and is prescient about the crisis of realism indicating a wider crisis of liberalism: “These are tough times for Anglo-American liberals. All we’ve got left to believe in is ourselves” (“Two Paths”). In response, Smith claimed, the British novel was stuck in a dismaying fetishisation of “authenticity”. Smith’s example was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, but it could equally well have been Saturday. In both cases, there is a conventional relapsing into what Smith calls “lyrical realism”, a kind of “state of the world” novel that nevertheless fails to stand up to the world in its transformed state, comforting itself instead with the “bedtime story” where the white, university-educated male protagonist remains at the centre of things by virtue of his unique affinity with subjects on the margins (“Two Paths”).
Since Smith’s essay, we are not much closer to a mainstream literary culture that can confidently move beyond this state of affairs. But McEwan’s novel is useful insofar as it reveals more cogently than most the contradictions of centrism, giving us a preview of its most entrenched fantasies of its sense of purpose in the world just at the moment when its political cogency was beginning to wane. Saturday is a novel about chance encounters with history, wherein the hero makes the right decisions, and avoids disaster. It is unrepentantly optimistic. That McEwan’s most recent significant novel, Machines Like Us, is a mournful, could-have-been-otherwise tale, tells us all we need to know about the fate of Saturday’s vision.
CITATION: Jacob Soule, “Class, Authenticity and Centrism: Revisiting Ian McEwan’s Saturday“, Alluvium, 8.2 (2020): n.pag. Web. 13 July 2020, https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.2.02
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Dr. Jacob Soule is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the English Department at Auburn University. In December 2019 he completed his PhD in the Program in Literature at Duke University. He is currently at work on a monograph titled The City Novel After the City: Planetary Metropolis, World Literature. He has an article on the historical novel in the current issue of Contemporary Literature, and has previously written for Polygraph, Keywords: A Journal of Cultural Materialism,Jacobin, The New Socialist, and the Verso Books Blog.
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