Sunday, December 18, 2005

a Saturday you don't want to end

I've been reading Ian McEwan's most recent novel Saturday, which takes a somewhat Joycean trip through a single day, but stays resolutely in the consciousness of one character, in the manner of Proust. I haven't finished it yet, but I wanted to share a couple of passages which especially struck me.

This first one comes during a hard-fought squash game pitting Henry Perowne, the novel's neurosurgeon protagonist, against his anaesthesiologist colleague Jay Strauss:
Jay's prepared to let the rallies go on while he hogs centre court and lobs to the back, drops to the front, and finds his angle shots. Perowne scampers around his opponent like a circus pony. He twists back to life balls out of the rear corners, then dashes forwards at a stretch to connect with the drop shots. The constant change of direction tires him as much as his gathering self-hatred. Why has he volunteered for, even anticipated with pleasure, this humiliation, this torture? It's at moments like these in a game that the essentials of his character are exposed: narrow, ineffectual, stupid -- and morally so. The game becomes an extended metaphor of character defect. Every error he makes is so profoundly, so irritatingly typical of himself, instantly familiar, like a signature, like a tissue scar of some deformation in a private place. As intimate and self-evident as the feel of his tongue in his mouth. Only he can go wrong in quite this way, and only he deserves to lose in just this manner. As the points fall he draws his remaining energy from a darkening pool of fury.
Perowne is always forming clinical associations with events in the outer and inner worlds, but the richness of his allusions can draw the reader towards one's own associations and pathologies. This passage reminded me of how, when things go wrong, frustrations can seem to swirl out of control, making me doubt every aspect of my personality. A moment later, though, the game's momentum has turned again, and all the furious self-hatred is forgotten.

This other passage describes watching Perowne's blues guitarist son Theo play:
No longer tired, Henry comes away from the wall where he's been leaning, and walks into the middle of the dark auditorium, towards the great engine of sound. He lets it engulf him. There are these rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they've ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself. 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 notes.
Of course McEwan will bias a lot of musician readers in his favor, with descriptions like that! Proust and Joyce both wrote equally eloquent praise of music, though, and they were no worse for it.

I will probably have more to say about Saturday once I finish it. In the meantime you can read "The Diagnosis," an excerpt which appeared in The New Yorker online, or visit McEwan's own website. It is a novel of our time, set in the winter of 2003 and containing meditations on the coming Iraq war, the battle between religious fundamentalism and consumer culture, and the peculiar situation of affluent first-world people enjoying advantages greater than at any other time in history, while the world edges towards a new dark age. I think much of the novel is timeless though, and will be recognized and appreciated by people in whatever dystopic ages might follow ours.

1 comment:

Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

I was impressed by that excerpt in the New Yorker some months ago and have put the book down on my list. I am looking forward to hearing more of what you have to say about it...