A Lesson in Revision: A review of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday
It is a source of no small irritation to many of my writer friends that when it comes to novels, I tend to prefer British writers to Americans. Howls rise, lists of great American writers are tossed out, I am accused of everything from faulty reading to lack of patriotism to being old–fashioned in my tastes. Still, it’s true – Henry James and Don DeLillo notwithstanding, I find that almost all of my favorite novels, particularly from the last hundred years, have come from the U.K.
If it is true, as an independent editor/publisher friend told me recently, that for a first novel to get published in the States it has to consist of at least 50, and preferably 70, percent dialogue, then no wonder so many contemporary American novels feel to me like thin run–ups to a movie script. Nuance, ambiguities, introspection, philosophy – all that is sacrificed for snappy exchanges that might play well on the big screen.
Authors across the Atlantic seem to have a less hurried sense of pace. From D.H. Lawrence to Iris Murdoch, from Graham Greene to A.S. Byatt, what I find so alluring in British writers is their ability to move from action to analysis, from talk to introspection, and from the intimacies between people to the state of the world around them. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is about Connie and Mellors, yes, but it is also a story of class, of what status or lack thereof does to people, and of the rot that inevitably sets in wherever people are born onto their various societal rungs and cannot strive to climb much above without punishment, or fall below without censure. And Lawrence’s great achievement – or rather, one of them – is that these two aspects of the novel are completely meshed. Connie’s love for Mellors is political and personal; when she shatters her family life, she also throws a brick, or at least a very heavy shoe, through the glass wall of the society and class she was born into.
Class, and the ruptures that happen when people from what my mother would have called different sides of the track meet or are thrown together, is also a recurring subject in the work of Ian McEwan, whose novel Atonement turns on it; the boy who is wrongly accused and convicted of rape in the book is working–class, a gardener’s son, while the actual perpetrator goes free and, horribly, eventually marries his victim. Their own good breeding is what prevents the young British couple in The Comfort of Strangers from refusing the increasingly strange invitations of the man and wife they meet in Venice – an inability that leads to death. And in McEwan’s latest novel, Saturday, the central character, Henry Perowne, is a successful neurosurgeon with a genuinely happy family life who finds his world upended by first one and then another encounter with a troubled young thug named Baxter. Perowne thinks he has averted disaster in their first meeting through some quick talking, but instead, contact with Perowne has thrown Baxter into a mental and emotional crisis that leads him to break into Perowne’s house and threaten his family at knifepoint.
If this sounds familiar to McEwan fans, it’s because he tackled nearly the same plot in a novel published almost a decade ago, Enduring Love. By happy accident, I had finished reading that earlier novel only a few days before I began Saturday. What space and time might have dulled was fresh before me: to read these two novels in sequence is to get, from McEwan, a kind of object lesson in revision. Enduring Love and Saturday tell, in many ways, the same story. But in the later book, McEwan has distilled and concentrated his tale, trimming a couple of subplots and integrating others into the central narrative. The characters are richer, more fully fleshed out, their encounters more sharply edged. The result is that, while Enduring Love is a good and gripping novel, Saturday is a great one.
A master’s thesis could be written on the ways in which the later novel revises and improves the earlier work. In the center of each is a middle–aged, well–educated, successful man who is deeply absorbed in his particular field and deeply in love with his wife. Each of these men – Joe Rose in the earlier novel, Henry in Saturday– has an accidental encounter with a disturbed and disturbing man who becomes fixated on him. These outsiders – Jed Perry in Enduring Love, the single–named Baxter in the later novel – become disruptive and potentially deadly.
But there are important and illuminating differences between these two books. I will try to describe a few of these without revealing too much and spoiling things for potential new readers. Part of the delight of reading McEwan is that he is a genuine master of surprise.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is that, while Henry seems born to his career as a neurosurgeon, Joe, a successful science writer, has never entirely forgiven himself for giving up academia and pure research. He goes through what the reader comes to understand are periodic episodes of restlessness, and makes futile attempts to restart his career as a scientist. His encounter with Jed triggers one of these. But rather than deepening the character, this restlessness in Joe become a distraction from the novel’s central concerns, muddying Joe’s motivations. In Saturday, Henry Perowne’s evident satisfaction with his career gives Baxter’s disruptive appearance in his life all the more impact.
Another troublesome aspect of the first novel is a subplot involving the childlessness of Joe and his wife, Clarissa. We are given to understand, many times over, that this is a tragedy for them both, though more for her; we are told and shown, repeatedly, that they are both good with children; and we discover, in an appendix to the book that is a psychological case study of Jed Perry, that Joe and Clarissa eventually reconcile – Jed’s fixation on Joe having driven them apart – and adopt a child. I suppose that the reader should feel relief, even joy, at this news, but I couldn’t help but think that McEwan simply didn’t know how to resolve this subplot, and so just snipped it off in a clinical sentence. In the later novel, Joe and Rosalind have two adult children; though their relationships are not trouble–free, they are loving and real.
Part of the new novel’s power arises from the concentrated nature of the narrative. Saturday takes place over the course of 24 hours, and, as so often happens to writers, tightening the container has freed McEwan’s language in a marvelous way. His quiet virtuosity never lapses. There are passages of dense, exact detail – a shot–for–shot description of a squash game; a scene where Henry makes fish stew for a family dinner that is so precise, one could almost copy out his recipe – that work as lyric poetry works, stopping time and expanding the breath within it. There are moving exchanges, between husband and wife, father and son, daughter and father, between the bewildered thug Baxter and the man he has decided, for a time, to focus his rage and frustration on.
Among my favorite moments are two very beautiful sexual encounters. In both the first and last chapters of Saturday, Henry and Rosalind make love. Their sweetness to each other, their humble gratitude, and their passion, are lovely to witness. There is great comfort in their lovemaking, a comfort that extends to the reader. And it feels earned. Saturday is a masterpiece.