Perils of seizing the day

Saturday

Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape, 17.99

HOW do you follow a triumph like the Booker shortlisted Atonement? The temptation is either to try and do the same thing again, or else go for something totally different. Instead, Ian McEwan has fallen somewhere in between. Though he has swapped period drama for the present day, his new novel Saturday resembles Atonement in many ways. Alas, it can only suffer by comparison.

Saturday describes one day in the life of London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. The day is February 15, 2003, when people across the world marched in protest against the impending Iraq war. Against this global backdrop, Perowne’s own drama unfolds.

In Atonement, McEwan stretched time so that a single evening filled half the book. But then in the rest of the book, we got the aftermath of that evening over the following years. By placing all the action of Saturday on the single day of the title, McEwan sets himself a tricky task. Just how much can happen to an ordinary person in one day? How many stories can not only begin, but also have a middle and an end, before lights out?

James Joyce managed it in Ulysses, but only thanks to stylistic games. McEwan, by contrast, writes in a naturalistic style that would have been perfectly recognisable to readers a century ago. And while Virginia Woolf pulled off the day-in-the-life format in Mrs Dalloway, she did not tell the story exclusively from her central character’s perspective. That, though, is what McEwan opts to do: we follow Perowne from pre-dawn waking to final well-earned slumber, with a squash game in between.

For dramatic events, there can only be two possibilities. Either we must get them through Perowne’s memories, or else something pretty unusual has to happen. McEwan gives us both. Standing at the window while his wife still sleeps, Perowne, after 14 pages of rumination, sees a jet aircraft in flames.

His jazz-musician son is already awake; he and Perowne watch the news channel and learn that a cargo plane has had to make an emergency landing. So no great drama there. Instead we proceed through further memories as Perowne starts to get his day in gear, driving his Merc across London to meet his colleague for squash.

This is when he encounters the march. Perowne disapproves. "Ever since he treated an Iraqi professor of ancient history for an aneurysm, saw his torture scars and listened to his stories, Perowne has had ambivalent or confused and shifting ideas about this coming invasion." Politics, in other words, sits very uncomfortably in this book. His daughter Daisy, who arrives in the evening to celebrate the appearance of her first poetry collection, gets into an argument with Perowne about his views; but for the most part they go unchallenged, except - presumably - by many readers.

Is McEwan’s intention ironic? One suspects so. As well as guardedly supporting the war, Perowne is also brushing up on literature, courtesy of his daughter’s reading lists. The neurosurgeon - whose inner thoughts read in many places like the script from ER as he ponders "glutamic acid decarboxylase and choline acetyltransferase" - has never been able to get his head round novels and poetry. The so-called great works of literature are "irksome confections" to him. "The times are strange enough; why make things up?"

Surely we can take this as reassurance that Perowne’s views are not to be taken seriously: a novelist is hardly going to agree that novels are a waste of time. And yet there is something disturbingly persuasive about Perowne’s thoughts on the "sophisticated fairy stories" - by people like Tolstoy and Flaubert - which he feels no longer have relevance. It is as if McEwan doubts his own undertaking, losing faith in the traditional novelistic style of which he is such a master.

The excessive medical terminology could be a symptom of this unease: a hankering for big ideas over the minutiae of social interactions. It shows itself in finer details too. McEwan writes in the present tense and, as with every other aspect of his self-imposed form, it presents problems. That Iraqi professor, for example. When recalling him, would Perowne say the man "was" in his sixties, or "is"? Perowne saw him in the past; but the man is still alive. So "is" is technically correct, but "was" is more natural. McEwan opts for "is", and it jars, suggesting that this present-tense patient is still part of the ongoing action, likely to reappear at any moment. He never does.

Particularly in the early part of the book, the present tense sits uneasily with a narrative that works best when looking into Perowne’s past. He remembers how he met his wife - initially his patient - and her father, a distinguished poet who has inspired Daisy’s new career.

But it is when Perowne takes an illegal detour through a closed-off street, to avoid the march, that McEwan finds the action - the here and now - he has been looking for. Perowne accidentally scrapes a BMW containing a diminutive thug and his two minders. It is the kind of scene at which McEwan excels: his depiction of the showdown is tense, visual and dramatic. Perowne expects to be mugged, professionally aware of what their boots might do to him. "The foot, like some roughneck hick town, is a remote province of the brain, liberated by distance from responsibility."

YET PEROWNE SAVES himself, gets to the squash game - and leaves us wondering if Baxter, the thug, will ever return. Common sense and statistics say no: random incidents don’t come back to haunt us, at least not on the same day. But the laws of three-act drama prevail: Baxter shows up at Perowne’s house, seeking revenge for earlier humiliation. He holds up the family at knife-point.

Perowne’s earlier getaway was improbable; his later one is frankly ludicrous. His daughter, having been made to strip naked in a scene so well written as to be almost unbearable, recites a poem. Baxter likes it so much he decides to leave her alone.

If there is any kind of moral message, it appears to be that crazy knife-wielding people can be tamed by the beauties of Western literature. I wonder if anybody tried that approach on 9/11. Certainly, plenty of school teachers have tried it, and have found that Matthew Arnold won’t even stop a pea-shooter, never mind a knife.

Baxter subsequently winds up in hospital with a fractured skull, and the book’s final moral dilemma is whether Perowne should operate on him. By now, though, most readers will have been left feeling that whatever he and his comfortable, middle-class family have had to suffer, it pales into insignificance beside the misfortunes of whole nations.

In Atonement, McEwan chose young characters whose life-changing experiences slowly resonated through wider events. In Saturday he has turned it all around: a middle-aged hero resistant to change is set against the fate of millions. Perowne cannot hope to win. The writing is as sharp and vivid as ever; it is the raw material that is flawed.

Andrew Crumey is Scotland on Sunday’s literary editor