The Long View: Saturday

I hadn't know that Huntington's affected saccadic eye movements.


Saturday: A Novel
By Ian McEwan
Doubleday, 2005
289 Pages, US$26.00
ISBN 0-385-51180-9

 

Don't get me wrong: this is a serious, gripping book, which succeeds like few other contemporary novels in linking ordinary personal life to the great issues of the early 21st century. Nonetheless, as I was reading it, I could not help thinking of an animation in Episode 24 of the old Monty Python Flying Circus series, the Job Hunter sketch:

Voice Over: So Miss Johnson returned to her typing and dreamed her little dreamy dreams, unaware as she was of the cruel trick fate had in store for her. For Miss Johnson was about to fall victim of the dreaded international Chinese Communist Conspiracy. (lots of little yellow men pour into the office) Yes, these fanatical thieves under the leadership of the so-called Moo Tse-tung (who appears in the animation) had caught Miss Johnson off guard for one brief but fatal moment and destroyed her. (Miss Johnson is submerged in a tide of yellow men) Just as they are ready to do anytime free men anywhere waver in their defence of democracy.

In this novel, Miss Johnson is represented by Henry Perowne, a busy London neurosurgeon. We follow his thoughts and adventures through the whole of Saturday, February 15, 2003, the day of the big march in London to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq. He argues with his two children, both sensible, talented young adults, and we hear his debates in his own mind. (Well, he argues with his poet-daughter; his blues-playing son is against the war, but too cool to have systematic political opinions.) In the morning of that day, Perowne's one direct encounter with the march occasions a minor traffic accident, involving a minor criminal in the other car who suffers from a degenerative neurological disorder. That sets the doctor up for a home invasion in the evening. Such an event might seem a reproof, an irruption of real life into a day spent woolgathering about history, but maybe not, as we will see.

This book is filled with plausible technical detail. From what we learn of Perowne's medical practice at a public hospital, neurosurgery sounds oddly like dentistry: lots of impromptu procedures in the course of long days, conducted for the most part on patients who are sitting up. Amidst the blizzard of Latin medical vocabulary, I kept expecting the patients to be asked to rinse and spit. More difficult to write, I suspect, was the blow-by-blow account of a grudge-match of squash with the American anesthesiologist. The nuts-and-bolts research that went into this book seems endless: you could learn how to make a pretty good fish stew from Perowne's preparations for the family reunion that goes awry later in the day.

Despite all the action in the book, the story really consists of Perowne's inner reflections, not all of which are about the impending war. Book-length descriptions of subjective experience can be awfully tedious, unless you find the protagonist thinking things that you thought had occurred only to you. That happened to me several times in this novel, as in this passage about London traffic:

Rivers of light! He wants to make himself see it as Newton might, or his contemporaries, Boyle, Hooker, Wren, Willis—those clever, curious men of the English Enlightenment who for a few years held in their minds nearly all the world's science. Surely, they would be awed. Mentally, he shows it off to them: this is what we've done, this is commonplace in our time. All this teeming illumination would be wondrous if he could only see it through their eyes.

One of the recurring themes of Perowne's thoughts is how different the world has become, now that it is impossible for intelligent people to believe in God. It irks him that so many people do not seem to have yet gotten the memo about the refutation of the supernatural. Perowne bristles at the sight of Muslim women in burkhas on the streets of London. He regrets the persecution of Falun Gong by the Chinese government, because the persecution's cruelty gives philosophical materialism a bad name. When he visits his mother in the nursing home (she is suffering from multi-infarct dementia, mind you, not Alzheimer's Disease), she does issue a sort of prophecy, but there is no way to know that at the time.

The home invasion cracks the shell of Perowne's naturalism, on an existential if not necessarily a metaphysical level. That morning, Perowne had humiliated Baxter, the fidgety minor criminal, by indicating that he knew that Baxter was in the early stages of Huntington's Chorea. This saved Perowne from an immediate beating, but resulted in Baxter's appearing in Perowne's living room a few hours later, along with another knife-wielding thug.

Baxter was apparently a textbook case of Huntington's: the inability to make saccades (look it up), the emotional lability, the narcissism. Perowne also recognizes his own fault in using his medical knowledge to manipulate such a man. However, Perowne also sees that it was not just an array of neurons and some bad genetic code that was holding a knife to his wife's throat. Baxter was a human being, with a mind as well as a brain, who had had the ability to make some choices, and had chosen poorly. And for the same reason, and not just because he had arguably provoked Baxter, Perowne owed him some degree of care.

The book seems in danger for only a few pages of turning into A Clockwork Orange. The actual violence to all parties is confined to a blow to the sternum, a punch in the nose (of Perowne's aggravating grand-old-man of a father-in-law), and a firm-but-fair push down a flight of stairs. In the end, Perowne saves the injured Baxter's life; he also does not press charges.

Readers are free to apply Perowne's decisions in this matter to his indecisive thoughts about the Iraq War. Perhaps the Baathist regime in Iraq was to some extent the fault of Britain and America, just as the home invasion was, to some extent, Perowne's fault. However, even if Perowne had helped make the mess, he still had to deal with the consequences, violently if necessary. That need not translate into an endorsement of the war. Perowne's concern that Baxter receive treatment rather than criminal prosecution as the Huntington's Disease progresses could be taken as a metaphor for the containment of Iraq until its pathological regime crumbles of its own accord. On the other hand, the brain surgery that Perowne eventually performs on Baxter, after Perowne is called in by the American anesthesiologist, could be seen as an unusually literal representation of a “surgical strike.”

The future should find this book useful. It does a good job of preserving the state of the argument about Iraq on the eve of the war, despite the fact the book was written after more knowledge became available. One wonders, though, whether the people of the future will try to see their present through Henry Perowne's eyes.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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Saturday
By Ian McEwan