by Ian McEwan
On a Darkling Plain
A review by James Wood
In Schlegel's famous aphorism, the historian is a prophet facing backward. We
could describe, in the same spirit, the novelist as a historian facing inward.
This inward historian, or historian of inwardness, holds up no clear mirror but
rather the mind's mirror -- cloudy perhaps, stained, and losing some of its backing
-- to the world; that is to say, this historian watches how his or her fallible
characters interpret reality, how they inhabit it, how they distort it and force
it to accommodate to their mental cosmos. Novelists, then, are consumed by the
question of representation twice over. They themselves see the world and describe
or redescribe it; and they must describe their characters' own descriptions, too.
Thus we often have a sense, in fiction, of two different time signatures: the
world is living in 6/8, as it were, and the novel's hero or heroine is thinking
in 3/4. Most fictional characters think more slowly than reality passes; they
are internal expansionists. The naive hero of Chekhov's story "The
Kiss" finally tells his cynical fellow soldiers about the moment when a
glamorous woman kissed him, and he is disappointed because he had thought the
story would "take all morning to tell but it had taken only a minute."
The private story has swollen like bread in his warm mind.
Great historical events, such as wars and revolutions, refine this division
between characters and history -- between history and inwardness -- by concentrating
it to a point of irony: the gap between the public event and a fictional character's
experience of that event may become comically or tragically acute. The novelist
can disrupt the accepted record of a great public event by inserting his hero
into it, and letting his hero distort that public record. (The novel itself,
ideally, then becomes another kind of public record, a rival kind, as War
and Peace is now considered by most readers to "narrate" a version of Napoleon's
invasion of Russia.) This is what happens in The Charterhouse of Parma
when Fabrizio del Dongo stumbles upon the battle of Waterloo, or in Sentimental
Education when Frederic, strolling with his mistress in Fontainebleau, hears
reports of the revolution under way in Paris, or in The Good Soldier Svejk
when the hapless hero is sent off to World War I.
The events of September 11, 2001, would appear to resemble any other great
and appalling historical irruption; to offer the contemporary novelist the same
capacious dualism that war and revolution offered Tolstoy or Hasek. But there
are two major differences. The first is that the destruction of the Twin Towers
was itself represented and re-represented, in an era uniquely marked by the
obsessive over-representation of public events. Not only did we all see this
calamity, but television became for most of us the grotesque verification of
the calamity itself. And in a further irony, the "staging" of the
conflagration seemed to have been conjured into being -- to have been pre-imagined -- by
Hollywood disaster films. Thus into the novelist's dual representation (the
world, and the characters' reading of the world) was thrown a third layer of
mimesis: the version of the event as it was described for us on film and video.
Any novelist wanting to narrate the occurrences of September 11 would most likely
have to deal with a triple-skinned world, as if cutting through one of those
mutant fruits whose membrane seems almost to have smothered its pith.
The second difference is that, unlike a conventional war or even a single massive
extremity such as the sinking of the Titanic, the events of September
11 are surrounded by a great deal of invisible menace. There is a war on, but
it is in part a war with our minds, and it is necessarily hidden. The terrorist,
as Don DeLillo presciently suggested in Mao II, now alters the "inner
life of the culture" as the novelist used to do. (The Cold War, and the
threat of atomic annihilation, is a near parallel.) September 11 was thus a
hideous paradox: a vast theatrical performance of a single scene from a play
most of which is yet unwritten. September 11 was over-represented, but its actual
dynamics remain under-represented. We still know extraordinarily little about
the human motivation of the suicide bombers, despite the millions of journalistic
words that have been spent on them. Novelists who venture into this territory
may find themselves swinging between two difficult extremes, the explicit and
the implicit, the too visible and the too invisible.
The lento of novelistic gestation -- two or three years, it seems -- has now
brought about a number of fictional treatments of, or allusions to, September
11, chief of which are Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer's
novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, David Foster Wallace's novella
"The Suffering Channel," and Joyce Carol Oates's story "The Mutants."
(I except a clearly belated addendum at the end of Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex,
a novel from 2002, in which the narrator refers to recent ghastly occurrences.)
All of these works concern themselves in different ways with the gap between
a character's reading of the world and the media's reading of that world.
Wallace's story is in part about a trashy style magazine whose office is in
one of the towers; this is counterpointed by the arrival of a new cable television
network called The Suffering Channel, which will be devoted to endless, twenty-four-hour
coverage of pictures of humans in distress, culled from news programs around
the world. The actual catastrophe of September 11, which is never described
-- the story "ends" on September 10 -- is squeezed out, as it were,
between these two cheeks of trash journalism, the magazine and the television
station (a rather Wallace-like image, in fact, for a story much concerned with
shit). In Oates's story, a young New Yorker witnesses the first attack on the
towers and barricades herself into her apartment nearby, taking perverse consolation
from the strength of her doorlocks and the existence of her domestic fire extinguisher.
The power is out, but she attempts to turn on her television, and then a few
minutes later attempts to turn on her second television: "The blank gunmetal-gray
screen confronted her. She thought There is no news, yet. This seemed
to her comforting." In Saturday, which is set in London in 2003,
Henry Perowne, a middle-aged neurosurgeon, laments his dependence on television
He takes a step towards the CD player, then changes his mind for he's feeling
the pull, like gravity, of the approaching TV news. It's a condition of the
times, this compulsion to hear how it stands with the world, and be joined
to the generality, to a community of anxiety. The habit's grown stronger these
past two years; a different scale of news value has been set by monstrous
and spectacular scenes. The possibility of their recurrence is one thread
that binds the days. The government's counsel -- that an attack in a European
or American city is an inevitability -- isn't only a disclaimer of responsibility,
it's a heady promise. Everyone fears it, but there's also a darker longing
in the collective mind, a sickening for self-punishment and a blasphemous
curiosity. Just as the hospitals have their crisis plans, so the television
networks stand ready to deliver, and their audiences wait. Bigger, grosser
next time. Please don't let it happen. But let me see it all the same, as
it's happening and from every angle, and let me be among the first to know.
The extra skin of representation that surrounds September 11 appears to have
produced fiction that is necessarily concerned with the skin itself, with the
novel's own representation of the world, with an explicit reflection on fiction's
mimetic role. Indeed, in the months following September 2001, novelists and
critics often wondered, in print and in private, about what fiction could do
in the face of these enormities. There was doubtless a professional solipsism,
and even an absurdity, in these self-questionings: fiction, like irony, proved
curiously robust after all. But it was natural for novelists, their eyeballs
burned by such lightning, to worry about the limits of vision. And the garish
visibility of the tragedy seemed indeed to throw down a gauntlet: on the one
hand, the novelist felt dwarfed by the elephantine misprisions of the televisual
media, and on the other the novelist was sure that he or she must correct that
medium, must outwrite journalism's hasty hieroglyphics. Jonathan Safran Foer's
novel plays its juvenile narrator off against "official" depictions
of September 11, and is not shy to appropriate some of those official forms
for its own sometimes excitable uses (fifteen grainy photographs of someone
falling from one of the towers, assembled into a child's flip-movie scrapbook).
Saturday is explicitly involved with questions about fiction and its
ability to render the world: Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon, has no time for
novels, and is suspicious of their motives and achievements. Yet McEwan's book
finally stages a kind of battle between art and its apparent enemies, and art
wins -- or at least makes its case.
In the week following the fall of the towers, Ian McEwan published two articles
in The Guardian. Both were affecting. Neither mentioned fiction or fiction's
obligations, but in the light of his new novel both pieces can be seen to have
silhouetted this unspoken theme. The first reflected on the shame that the novelist
felt at his ghoulish addiction to television news. It was written only two days
after the event, and boiled with first impressions. The second article, three
days later, was a more considered statement. McEwan noted that it was what we
could not see, beyond the range of television cameras -- people falling from
windows, for instance, or the final cell phone calls -- that colonized the imagination.
He characterized our mental state thus: "Instead, we remember what we have
seen, and we daydream helplessly. Lately, most of us have inhabited the space
between the terrible actuality and these daydreams. Waking before dawn, going
about our business during the day, we fantasize ourselves into the events. What
if it was me?"
This, he continued, is the nature of empathy, "to think oneself into the
minds of others.... Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself
is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the
beginning of morality." The suicide attackers, by contrast, had suffered
"a failure of the imagination." They would not have been able to do
what they did had they been able to imagine the suffering they would cause.
McEwan wrote about the victims' final phone calls, and their universal simplicity:
"I love you." He argued for the importance of "those three words
that all the terrible art, the worst pop songs and movies, the most seductive
lies, can somehow never cheapen." And he dared a noble Audenesque asymmetry:
"Love was all they had to set against the hatred of their murderers."
Without directly addressing the issues, McEwan touched on the two exceptional
elements of September 11, its visibility and its invisibility. He reflected
on its over-representation by visual media, while the novelist in him was also
consumed by all that this over-representation omitted. Implicitly, he appeared
to argue that imaginative exercise -- the very faculty the bombers lacked -- might
go some way toward correcting both extremes. The imagination would cut through
all the millions of received pictures, while daring to picture the visually
unrepresentable. Without writing a word about fiction, McEwan had defended fiction's
cardinal task, its ability to entertain lives other than our own -- to be the
historian of inwardness. And without explicitly making the connection, he suggested
a natural alliance between love and the exercise of the imagination, and hence
between love and art.
These are precisely the themes and dynamics of Saturday. But there is
a quality of liberal wish-fulfillment in the idea that we might "set against"
terrorism love and the imagination. What if, as seems likely, the terrorists
had indeed imagined the deaths of their hated American victims? The imagination
is blessed by its holder, just as the humanities humanize only those who are
willing to be humanized. Ian McEwan's imagination is worth cherishing; Mohammed
Atta's is not. It is just this tension that surfaces in his fine and affecting
new novel, and which is never quite resolved.
Saturday in effect stages a conflict between liberal decency and illiberal
menace in the private sphere, and sets this conflict within the larger context
of political liberalism and its menace by terrorism. Henry Perowne, a forty-eight-year-old
neurosurgeon, lives prosperously in a fine London square. He is happily married
to Rosalind, a lawyer for a newspaper, and has two successful children: Theo,
an already noted blues guitarist, and Daisy, who is about to have her first
book of poems published by Faber and Faber. One Saturday morning he wakes before
dawn (like the bereft daydreamers McEwan wrote about in his Guardian
piece), feeling alert and buoyant. Looking down from his window at the gracious
square, he feels that London is a great success,
a brilliant invention, a biological masterpiece -- millions teeming around
the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries, as though around
a coral reef, sleeping, working, entertaining themselves, harmonious for the
most part, nearly everyone wanting it to work. And the Perownes' own corner,
a triumph of congruent proportion; the perfect square laid out by Robert Adam
enclosing a perfect circle of garden -- an eighteenth-century dream bathed
and embraced by modernity, by street light from above, and from below by fibre-optic
cables, and cool fresh water coursing down pipes, and sewage borne away in
an instant of forgetting.
Perowne is a scientific optimist, a rational meliorist, and throughout the
novel's first half he will return to his belief in progress. (He jokes to his
daughter that if he were asked to construct a religion, it would be the religion
of evolution itself.) Driving through London in his sleek Mercedes, listening
to Schubert, he thinks:
At every level, material, medical, intellectual, sensual, for most people
it has improved. The teachers who educated Daisy at university thought the
idea of progress old-fashioned and ridiculous. In indignation, Perowne grips
the wheel tighter in his right hand. He remembers some lines by Medawar, a
man he admires: "To deride the hopes of progress is the ultimate fatuity,
the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind."... If the present
dispensation is wiped out now, the future will look back on us as gods, certainly
in this city, lucky gods blessed by supermarket cornucopias, torrents of accessible
information, warm clothes that weigh nothing, extended lifespans, wondrous
But this is not an ordinary Saturday, and the "present dispensation"
is menaced. It is February 2003, and on this Saturday hundreds of thousands
of demonstrators will gather in London to protest the British government's apparent
determination to go to war against Iraq, a decision that might itself be the
rotten fruit of the events of September 11. As he stands at his window in the
cool dawn, Perowne's eye is caught by what looks at first like a comet but is
actually a plane. Its wing is on fire, and it seems to be trying to land at
Heathrow. "It's already almost eighteen months since half the planet watched,
and watched again, the unseen captives driven through the sky to the slaughter,
at which time there gathered round the innocent silhouette of any jet plane
a novel association. Everyone agrees, airliners look different in the sky these
days, predatory or doomed." The plane does land. Throughout the day, Perowne
will turn on the television, mainly to find out what happened to the plane,
partly to keep up with news about the massive London marches -- above all in order
to receive television's baptism. It emerges that it was a Russian cargo plane;
the pilots are arrested on suspicion of terrorism. By the end of the day, they
have been released: it was just a mechanical fault.
Saturday is set on a single day, both with great naturalness and with
the self-consciousness that always attends such literary endeavors. (It is written,
for instance, in the present tense, a tense that mimics real-time continuity
but in fact always draws attention to the stop-time of writing itself.) Like
Atonement, also a fictional argument about fiction, Saturday alludes
to other novels and writers. It has a long epigraph from Herzog, and
is palpably indebted to Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses. It closes with
a whisper of allusion to Joyce's story "The Dead." Its denouement
turns on a reading of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." Less obviously,
McEwan has, I think, read Cosmopolis, DeLillo's novel set on a single
day, and he has learned from DeLillo's errors.
McEwan's protagonist, like DeLillo's, spends several hours driving through
a big city, and has a similar fondness for what Bellow once called "modern
speculation." But Henry Perowne has nothing in common with DeLillo's pomo
techno-analyst. His thoughtfulness is thoughtful rather than theoretical. McEwan
writes far better prose than DeLillo's smeary stylish ecstasies. His severely
planed and rich sentences are supple, disciplined, natural -- a rigorous dovetailing.
There are moments of quietly satirical wit: "Once a week, usually on a
Sunday evening, they [Henry and Rosalind] line up their personal organisers
side by side, like little mating creatures, so that their appointments can be
transferred into each other's diary along an infrared beam." But the prose
is also capable of aeration, and London is caught in precise sensuous detail.
Above all, the novel manages to inhabit the mind of a not immediately fascinating
man -- "a droning, pedestrian diagnostician," he thinks of himself,
and also something of a philistine -- and move easily from that mind to general
reflection and back, without ever losing narrative pressure.
He turns the corner into Paddington Street and stoops in front of the open-air
display of fish on a steeply raked slab of white marble. He sees at a glance
that everything he needs is here. Such abundance from the emptying seas. On
the tiled floor by the open doorway, piled in two wooden crates like rusting
industrial rejects, are the crabs and lobsters, and in the tangle of warlike
body parts there is discernible movement. On their pincers they're wearing
funereal black bands. It's fortunate for the fishmonger and his customers
that sea creatures are not adapted to make use of sound waves and have no
voice. Otherwise there'd be howling from those crates.... He turns his gaze
away, towards the bloodless white flesh, and eviscerated silver forms with
their unaccusing stare, and the deep-sea fish arranged in handy overlapping
steaks of innocent pink, like cardboard pages of a baby's first book.
Henry Perowne's Saturday starts out on the two poles between which it will
swing all day: the consolations of family and the desolation of terror. Shaken,
he chooses not to tell his wife about the witnessed airplane; they have quick
but happy sex (she is on her way to work). Henry talks to his son -- they watch
the news together in the kitchen, eager for information about the aircraft --
and then he drives his expensive car toward the squash court where he will play
his weekly game with a colleague. He has a few errands and chores: he must visit
his mother (a marvelous and terrible scene, beautifully written), who is suffering
from dementia and lives in a home, and he must buy the fish for dinner. His
daughter is returning from six months in Paris, and his father-in-law, a famous
poet resident for years in France, will also be present. It is a rare gathering.
On the way to the squash court, he encounters the marchers, who are noisy and
cheerful. A confused middle-aged liberal, Perowne is unsure about what to think.
His children are reflexively against the imminent war. But he has treated the
aneurysm of an Iraqi professor who had been in Saddam's prisons, and his views
are darkened by what he knows. (The two rather careful pages devoted to the
tribulations of the imprisoned and tortured professor are generically written
up, and are unworthy of the novel: they could have been compiled by a committee.)
The jollity of the marchers seems too decisive to Henry: "If they think -- and
they could be right -- that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing
and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre
in their view." The protestors are marching, he decides, for both peace
and torture, but they admit no such complexity. Henry and his daughter will
argue the fierce switchback of this politics later in the afternoon; Daisy is
amazed that her father, in his very irresolution, has joined the side of the
Accelerating to avoid the march, Henry has a minor collision with a red BMW,
breaking off its wing mirror; and like a spreading wound, the encounter will
gradually incarnadine the already shaky Saturday. From the car emerge three
tough-looking thugs. When Henry refuses their suggestion that he walk to the
nearest ATM and withdraw the cash to pay for the mirror, their leader, a man
named Baxter, throws Perowne against a fence and punches him in the chest. But
Perowne has the advantage. He has noticed a tremor in Baxter's arms, and an
inability to move his eyes independently of his body. He diagnoses a degenerative
neurological disease, and acting on a hunch, tells Baxter that he can help him.
Baxter is thrown by the observation, and the publicity of his illness seems
to humiliate him before his friends. The imminent beating of Perowne fizzles
away, and Henry makes his squash game after all.
McEwan, expert as always at narrative stealth, has planted a fizzing pill,
and we know that some horrid bubble must rise to the surface later in the day.
During the course of the next hour or two, Perowne catches sight of a red BMW
that appears to be tailing him, but he fails to see the wing mirror. At dinnertime,
as the guests gather, Baxter, armed with a knife, forces his way into the Perowne
home. The scene is almost unbearably tense. A long siege, and perhaps worse,
is avoided when Daisy, the young poet, calms Baxter by reciting "Dover
Beach" to him. He has demanded that she strip and read him some of her
verse, from a proof copy he sees on a table. Naked and trembling, she recites
Arnold's poem, which he mistakes for one of hers. Baxter is obscurely moved
by the poem, and can only say, again and again: "You wrote that."
The novel ends with the purging of menace, or seems to: late that night, the
traumatized couple, Henry and Rosalind, share the day's events, and make love
again, making a circle of the book's diurnal thread. But the circle is broken.
Perowne finds himself at the window again, as he began the day, but now "timid,
vulnerable," and full of death-filled thoughts. He is "scared of the
way consequences of an action leap away from your control and breed new events."
So the private uncertainty and the public uncertainty -- the unintended consequences
of any Iraq invasion -- merge at the book's close.
Reading McEwan, there are times when one feels that the extreme narrative order
-- his clean joins and hinges -- have been purchased at too high a cost to credibility,
and sometimes even to animation and free life. Perowne is convincingly rendered
in all his literalism and bland scientific ardor; but McEwan overdoes the extent
to which his entire life seems to be saturated by medical language and know-how.
Pushkin famously complained that Byron's conspirators even ordered a drink conspiratorially,
and Proust wisely observed the "lack (or seeming lack) of participation
by a person's soul in the virtue of which he or she is the agent." Proust
goes on to say that whenever he has come across, in convents for instance, truly
saintly people, they have always had the "cheerful, practical, brusque
and unemotioned air of a busy surgeon." McEwan's doctor is too completely
With Proustian complexity, Perowne should be more nun-like and less surgical.
He watches a drug addict scratching herself and sees "amphetamine-driven
formication.... Or an exogenous opioid-induced histamine reaction, common among
new users." He sees that Baxter's convulsive temper is typical of his disease,
and "suggestive of reduced levels of GABA among the appropriate binding
sites on striatal neurons." Perowne's tendency to supply medical terminology
whenever possible violates the delicacy -- finely achieved elsewhere in the
book -- of McEwan's free indirect style, for if Perowne were thinking to himself,
why would he need to remind himself so often of what he already knows anyway?
There seems to be no medical complaint he has not mastered, when anecdotal evidence
suggests that, to the contrary, hospital doctors are as specialized as academics:
you can't expect them to know, as it were, about Pope and Pound. McEwan's
steely research glints through the fabric of his narrative:
Opening up the back of the head needed great care because of the vessels
running close under the bone.... Finally it lay exposed, the tentorium --
the tent -- a pale delicate structure of beauty, like the little whirl of
a veiled dancer, where the dura is gathered and parted again. Below it lay
the cerebellum.... The astrocytoma was well defined and had only partially
infiltrated surrounding tissue. Perowne was able to excise almost all of it
without damaging any eloquent region.
But one will forgive much when prose is as good as this -- "like the little
whirl of a veiled dancer ... any eloquent region" -- and in fairness McEwan
wants to impress on us the distinctively prosaic nature of this "professional
reductionist" and "droning" diagnostician. Perowne has no time
for his daughter's poems (he enjoys his son's music), and although she has given
him novels to read, he cannot see the point. He doesn't believe his daughter
when she tells him that people need stories in order to live, since he doesn't
need them. Fiction seems inefficient to him, a clumsy provider and framer of
knowledge: too imprecise. At the same time, fiction seems too tidy, too unlike
life's messiness. "Unlike in Daisy's novels," he reflects to himself,
"moments of precise reckoning are rare in real life; questions of misinterpretation
are not often resolved. Nor do they remain pressingly unresolved. They simply
fade." Life is always more formless than art.
Into Henry Perowne's tidy life, on this fateful Saturday, will burst an imprecise,
menacingly messy force. Perowne would be the last person to believe that such
discontents can be countered by art; and yet this is exactly the battle the
novel stages, pitting Matthew Arnold against Baxter's inchoate anger. Should
Perowne, then, learn something from the very novel of which he is a character?
Doubtless he should, except that in a paradox that also haunted Atonement,
McEwan's novel, in its very argumentation, tends toward its own kind of convenient
tidiness. McEwan gets around this obvious problem, I think, by plunging for
the irrational. Baxter represents the irruption of the irrational; his kind
of terror is not opposed by fiction as such, but by a nobler version of the
irrational -- by poetry, by song, by music, and by love. Earlier in the book,
Perowne attended his son's band's rehearsal, and while the glorious blues sang
out, he reflected on music's implicit utopianism -- a collaboration, "an
impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing
Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for
peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever
-- mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ's kingdom
on earth, the workers' paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music,
and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of
community, and it's tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last
It is not fiction, then, with its habitual coincidences and unnatural encounters -- of
which this book has its fill -- but the ungraspable communion of music that might
be "set against the hatred of their murderers." Against a dark irrationality
can perhaps be posed the enlightened irrationality of music's fleeting utopia.
Verse, of course, is not irrational, and it does not hover beyond reference,
as music does. But it has its roots in song and music, and in Arnold's poem
the poet hears a kind of music, the note of eternal sadness, its "tremulous
cadence." This musical and poetic realm is our "eloquent region,"
to use Perowne's phrase about the cerebellum, and it is wielded against Baxter,
whose own eloquent regions are diseased and dying. But there is something uneasy
about this, and the stark binarism of the Guardian piece returns here.
Arnold versus Baxter has something of Ariel and Caliban about it, beauty and
the beast. If recent events in this country are anything to go by, a reading
of Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life would probably do the trick
with violent intruders better than a dose of Arnold. I suspect that McEwan is
perfectly aware of both the over-allegorical turn his book takes and the sentimental
quality of the contest itself. The contest is beyond rationality, and beyond,
in a sense, the explanation of the novel: it is a hope, a flourish, a plangent
asymmetry very like the one McEwan waved in his Guardian piece. And just
as that piece silently conjoined love, art, and the imagination, so "Dover
Beach," used in this context, does the same, that poem whose most celebrated
lines are "Ah, love, let us be true/To one another!"
In a sense, the optimistic gesture is itself a piece of song. That is to say,
it is the kind of exhortation, the kind of dream, that belongs best in the compact
explosions of lyricism. No one -- except perhaps the poet himself, in later life -- really
begrudges Auden the sentimentality of "We must love one another or die,"
because the line is but a phrase -- the top notes, if you like, the crescendo -- from
a lyrical song. We indulge its music. McEwan's equivalent crescendo is necessarily
harder to pull off in a novel, whose form elongates, by dramatizing, such single
lines of lyrical optimism, turning music into inevitable argumentation. Ideas,
when enacted in fiction, become more vulnerable than their equivalent in poetry,
because drama reifies them, forces them into bodily form.
McEwan, as if sensing that his novel, even in this play for the irrational,
has become too allegorical, lowers the didactic pressure, and the book ends
beautifully, in lyrical uncertainty. Fiction, as it were, reclaims its messiness,
its imprecision. Perowne, it should be made clear, does not necessarily assume,
any more than the novel does, that poetry has routed menace, and that everyone
can sleep. Indeed, comically and ironically, Perowne the philistine had assumed,
like Baxter, that Daisy was reading one of her own works. In the final pages
Perowne stands once again at his window, in the predawn chill, and thinks of
his mother, who will soon die, and of his father-in-law, whose turn it will
be next. His mind plays ahead, into the certain-uncertain future: his children
will grow up and move away, he will retire from active surgery, and then he
and Rosalind will "find they no longer have strength for the square, the
junkies and the traffic din and dust. Perhaps a bomb in the cause of jihad will
drive them out with all the other faint-hearts into the suburbs, or deeper into
the country ... their Saturday will become a Sunday." At the last, the
novel's literalist hero delicately gathers his very literal Saturday, and makes
it metaphorical, emblematic; all our Saturdays will become Sundays, as all our
yesterdays have lit the way to dusty death.
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