Ian McEwan’s Saturday: Criticism of the Post-9/11 Society
The events of 9/11 were a shock for not only the United States but also for the whole world. Suddenly, the country that was often perceived as impenetrable and unbeatable had to deal with the repercussions of a terrorist attack, shattering its masculine image (Carpenter 150). New, stricter guidelines were introduced at airports around the world and the war on terrorism officially became one of the main focal points of American politics. In Saturday, the novel by Ian McEwan published in 2005, the nature of post-9/11 society plays a central part. Set in London on February 15, 2003, the day of the massive demonstration against the war in Iraq, the narrative follows neurosurgeon Henry Perowne as he experiences this memorable Saturday.
Perowne’s day starts in an unusual way: he wakes up feeling euphoric in the early hours of the morning, walks over to the windows, and observes what he assumes to be a plane taken over by terrorists making its way to the Post Office Tower. He later discovers it was simply a Russian cargo plane making an emergency landing at Heathrow airport. Apart from this incident, Perowne’s day starts off looking positive: “Perowne returns to bed, makes love to his wife, gets up and chats with his son in the kitchen, and later sets out for the tasks of the day. These involve a game of squash with a colleague, the purchase of seafood from his favourite fishmonger, a visit to his mother in an old people’s home, a brief appearance at his son’s band rehearsal, and the preparation of dinner for the grand family reunion with poets John Grammaticus [Perowne’s father-in-law] and Daisy [Perowne’s daughter] coming from France.” (Eckstein 3). However, a run-in with criminal Baxter and his cohorts while on his way to the squash game sets off a chain of events that turn the day sour. Perowne manages to throw Baxter off after receiving only one punch, by recognizing he has Huntington’s disease, “confronting him with his diagnosis, revealing his own profession as neurosurgeon, and offering some fake ideas for possible cures.” (Eckstein 3)
While the rest of his day seems to sail by smoothly, it’s at the dinner party that the climax of the novel takes place: Baxter, joined by one of his partners-in-crime, breaks into Perowne’s house, causes physical harm to both Grammaticus and Rosalind – Perowne’s wife – and intends to rape Daisy. Once he has forced her to undress he discovers she’s pregnant, which leads him to abandon this intention and makes him focus on the volume of her recently published poetry. After she recites Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, pretending it is her own work, Baxter’s mood changes and he agrees to go upstairs to look at some research about treatment for his disease. Though the research was a figment of Perowne’s imagination, it suffices to give both him and his son, Theo, a chance to overpower Baxter. After they throw him off the stairs, Perowne operates on Baxter in the hospital to repair the brain damage the fall caused. The day ends with Perowne making love to his wife yet another time. Apart from the obvious allusion to 9/11 in the opening scene (Ross) and the demonstration in London, there are many more references to the post-9/11 world, often accompanied by critical notions (Hillard 186). Saturday offers critique of British society in the post-9/11, which can be found in the texture of its story and especially in its characters.
A theme that frequently makes an appearance in Saturday is terrorism, including the terrorism that is involved in the ongoing wars. As Carpenter explains, the figure of Baxter is used as a personification of terrorism itself (150). His actions mirror the events of 9/11, as he turns what seems to be a peaceful day into a nightmare by breaking into the Perowne residence and terrorizing the frightened inhabitants and visitors. Baxter’s irrational and sudden mood swings and unpredictable behavior, which are largely attributed to him having Huntington’s disease, can be used as an explanation for the motivations behind terrorist attacks: after Daisy recites “Dover Beach”, his mood turns in an unexpected way. “. . . his sudden abandonment of his contempt for Perowne and all he represents suggests that the terrorists’ reasons for hating those whom they terrorize are also not deeply rooted and rational, but stem from an irrational desire to humiliate those who make them aware of their relative lack of power and privilege” (Carpenter 151). The gap between those with power and wealth and those who don’t lead such a comfortable, privileged life is portrayed by the contrast between Perowne and Baxter, as well as by the difference in status between Perowne and the average Brit: “In this reading, Perowne becomes the voice of white, male, professional-class privilege, deploying what Elaine Hadley calls a ‘surgical act of liberal detachment’ from other people, or rather from the people (97)” (Hillard 186). Eckstein adds: “Inversely, I cannot remember reading another novel in recent years in which class division, here between Baxter and the Perownes, was so starkly exposed” (4).
The clash between upper middle class and the less well-endowed becomes literal when Perowne’s Mercedes collides with Baxter’s old BMW; the scene that follows emphasizes the gap even more as Perowne manages to get away after a single punch by using his intellect and medical skills. One of the causes for the accident is the fact that several roads are closed down to make sure that the protesters can get through, since the novel is set on the day of the massive protest march against Britain partaking in the Iraq war. Though Perowne has no intention of joining them, “. . . the book is saturated with debates about the war” (Groes 101).
Saturday addresses many issues, though the ones that stand out – like terrorism, the war and class segregation – seem to revolve around a clash between two sides, a feeling of ‘us versus the other’. It’s not a manual for coping after 9/11 and doesn’t offer a clear solution, but Carpenter proposes that the novel does seem to hint towards a different look on masculinity: “[Saturday] proposes an alternative to the American model of masculinity, in which force must be countered with greater force, and in which any emotions which might make one qualify the amount of shock and awe one is willing to dole out—including any degree of sympathy with one’s enemies or reservations about the justice of punitive measures—is badly misplaced. Saturday endorses a vision of masculinity whose magnanimous, paternalistic grandeur is more in keeping with the imperialist ethos of Arnold’s Victorian era when Great Britain reigned supreme than with the contemporary world” (Carpenter 150). The critique Saturday offers is shown in the characters and in their interactions with each other, as well as in the storyline.
A Day in the Life in the Future: The Contemporary Man in Saturday
In Ian McEwan’s Saturday, the protagonist Henry Perowne is given the task of representing the trials of being a contemporary man. However, he seems to be more than just an average contemporary man. McEwan gives Henry the characteristics of a somewhat perfect man, an individual who society in a post-terrorism world may strive to be like. These actions make it seem as if McEwan is writing Henry as a response to the war-driven world. McEwan does this by making Henry neutral when it comes to situations where violence would be seen as acceptable. The image of the future man is increased by Henry’s negative viewpoint on old views and positive outlook at artefacts of the future.First, Henry has the characteristics of a man who is against quick action in the form of violence. His thoughts on the initial reaction of the world responding to terrorism with war are given early, where he thinks to himself that the “idea…was all an aberration, that the world would surely calm down…that solutions were possible, that reason [was a] powerful tool”(McEwan 30). Here, Henry describes his initial thoughts surrounding how terrorism was to be handled, through reason rather than war. He seems to be convincing himself that the rest of the world thinks like he does. This, juxtaposed with the anti-war protest in Saturday gives Henry the image of a representative of a group of future-thinking individuals.Additionally, the relationship between those like Henry, who are against violence, and the war-prone remainder of society is shown symbolically through Henry meeting with Baxter after their minor car accident. A metaphorical relationship between the character of Baxter and war is unmistakable. He is described as wearing a “sixties-style suit [with] tightness in the fabric round the biceps”(McEwan 74) and also “[gave] an impression of fretful impatience, of destructive energy waiting to be released”(McEwan 74). Looking closely, at the physical description, the clothing suggests that he represents a historical view of war in society, the tightness of the fabric around the biceps implies a more violent past and and weapons that have intimidation over society, as it intimidates Henry who notices it quickly. His impatient and destructive demeanour also contribute to this vision of a representative of war when compared to Henry’s more rational approach of “reason” on situations. Henry’s rationality is clearly put when he mentions that “…self-interested social organisms find it rational to be violent sometimes”(McEwan 74). This further distinguishes Henry from the rest of society because this description of violence implies the notion that what is rational is not always reasonable. By stating this, Henry suggests that the easiest solution for one is not always best for the masses. This description moves away from the standardized government-dictated society that the world is living in, which contributes to Henry’s image of a future man.Moreover, Henry applies his theories of violence when his family is being threatened by Baxter. During his initial encounter with this forced scenario, he “…tries to see the room through [Baxter’s] eyes, as if that might help predict the degree of trouble ahead…”(McEwan 166). Even thought the opportunity of a counter-attack is possible – “[Henry and Theo were] in a good position to rush him”(McEwan 167) – Henry still surveys the situation and waits for the best possible option. Again, McEwan seems to be commenting directly on Britain’s response to terrorism in the novel, whereas one party may resort to a counter-attack immediately after an invasion as a sort of primitive revenge; a more modern mentality on the other hand may be that “When anything can happen, everything matters.”(166). If the house can be represented as a country, then McEwan taking into account the well-being of all of its citizens before any potentially rash action has taken place. Although Henry ultimately resorts to “[flinging Baxter] down the stairs”(McEwan 183) it only happens when every other available option have been exhausted, this is what separates him and the rest of the anti-war population from the rest of society, and what ultimately makes him a future man.Furthermore, what links Henry to the future are his views on the past. More specifically, of past fixations of man compared to more modern views. An example of this would be the comparison of young and old minds with regards to architecture. Henry and Grammaticus have a dialogue where Grammaticus argues that the “[Post Office Tower has] No grace, no warmth. It would have put fear in [Adam’s] heart.”(McEwan 159). Here, Grammaticus gives the buildings a religious quality, perhaps from coming from an age where the ideal was that taller buildings were considered religious ones, and that was their purpose, hence the reference to “Adam”. Henry’s description of the tower is quite different: “…Post Office Tower – less ugly these days with its aluminium entrance, blue cladding and geometric masses of windows and ventilation grills”(McEwan 66). His description tends to be more apathetic when it comes to personal emotion towards the building, as if he acknowledges its purpose and sees it as nothing more. This is further realized when the specific traits he points out on the building tend to be more for functional purposes rather than beauty. Therefore, Henry’s belief of a function over form as a positive attribute to buildings reveals a more realistic future of man, that beauty in the modern world and future is seen in its ability to provide as much function as possible rather than focus more on artistic qualities directly.Overall, Henry Perowne in Ian McEwan’s Saturday is portrayed as a futuristic man. McEwan accomplishes this by juxtaposing Henry with a anti-war protest and gives his the attributes of an individual who has already seen what the war will bring, someone who is more analytical in their actions, rather than quick to violence. He also does this by giving him a positive view on the beauty of function, rather than beauty for beauty’s sake.