Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Saturday on Saturday

Ian McEwan’s latest has been exhaustively reviewed in both Ireland and Britain since its release and it’s now getting fairly respectful notices in the U.S. I don’t have much too add, except two, related things that struck me when I read an interview with McEwan by Adam Begley, which appeared in the insiderish New York Observer. Begley writes “when I mentioned Virginia Woolf�s novel [Mrs. Dalloway] to him, Mr. McEwan said he�d been thinking, rather, about Saul Bellow�s �mastery of digression� in Herzog (�always within reach when I was writing this novel�) and John Updike�s �hypnotic� use of the present tense in the Rabbit novels. �There�s a certain kind of novel, at which Americans excelled in the second half of the 20th century, which sets out to capture a man, a city, a century.� A similar ambition prompted Mr. McEwan to put a 24-hour slice of Henry Perowne�s enviable existence under the microscope”But I think a key difference between McEwan and the Americans he mentions is that the latter are, for want of a better description, funny. Whereas McEwan is (at least intentionally*) not. The comic is not, I think, a supernumerary garnish that’s added to the main plate in these kinds of novels but an essential tactic that makes the protagonists bearable. Updike’s Rabbit is boorish and Bellow’s Herzog is mawkishly self-obsessed, but we tolerate their flaws for several hundred pages because they make us laugh with their idiosyncratic monologues. And because laughter is an act of empathy, we begin to become complicit in their worldview. (Admittedly, this might be easier for male readers as both characters’ worldview encompasses fairly bitter observations about the women in their lives.) In contrast, McEwan’s Perowne is everything Rabbit or Herzog is not: uxorious, patient, a good father, a measured observer of the world around him. He is also rather boring–nowhere in the book did I chuckle, even guiltily, even inwardly, at Perowne’s articulated thoughts. And that’s a major hurdle. Part of the reason might be McEwan’s fairly static prose. In place of Updike’s brilliant act of ventriloquism or Bellow’s febrile philosophy, we have in Saturday a voice that sometimes comes uncomfortably close to Sunday paper journalism. As Perowne peregrinates across London, his thoughts on terrorism, food, and family relationships occasionally seem like a superior brand of the stuff that columnists often churn out on auto-pilot.The second thing I thought about was triggered by McEwan saying that Herzog was “always within reach” during the writing of the novel. Of course, a passage from Herzog provides Saturday‘s epigraph. But there’s another scene, a minor one, in which I detected a buried homage to Herzog. Both scenes oddly involve fish and crustaceans and perhaps illuminate some of the points I’ve made above.From Saturday: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 sees. 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 discernable movement. On their pincers they’re wearing black funereal black bands. It’s fortunate for the fishmongers and his customers that sea creatures are not adapted to make use of sound waves and have no voice. Even the silence among the softly stirring crowd is troubling.And from Herzog:Herzog was loitering for a moment near the fish store, arrested by the odor. A thin muscular Negro was pitching buckets of ice into the deep window. The fish were packed together, backs arched as if they were swimming in the crushed, smoking ice, bloody bronze, slimy black-green, gray-gold–the lobsters were crowded to the glass, feelers bent. The morning was warm, gray, damp, fresh, smelling of the river. Pausing on the metal doors of the sidewalk elevator, Moses received the raised pattern of the steel through his thin sole shoes; like Braille. But he did not interpret a message. What do we learn from the comparison? I’ll leave it up to you.* There is a scene when Perowne goes to see his son rehearse a blues song dedicated to the Perownes’ affluent neighbourhood that comes perilously close to cringe inducing. A blues song about a Georgian square? I’ll spare you the lyrics.