The Imagination of Disaster
Saturday begins with its main character, Henry Perowne, getting out of bed because he's unable to sleep and going to stand by an open window. It is a chilly night, a Friday night, a few hours before dawn. Henry sees a plane heading toward Heathrow. Suddenly, the plane bursts into flames. Henry's attention is riveted on the descending aircraft. Almost two and a half years after the attacks on 9/11 gripped the public consciousness, this brilliant middle-aged neurosurgeon fears another upending of reality. But what has really happened is that public consciousness has finally caught up with Ian McEwan's vision of life.
McEwan is David Hume's novelistic heir. Hume held that what passes for rational certainty is actually an irrational belief based on customs or repeated experiences. As he wrote in his most famous example, we expect that the sun will rise tomorrow because our experience has been that the sun rises every day, but there is no way to prove that it will. We've simply gotten used to the custom of day following night. Watching the burning plane as it moves closer and closer to densely populated London, Henry finds himself occupying a place in life at which all McEwan's protagonists eventually arrive--usually within the opening pages of a novel. Their accustomed world is about to fall to pieces. For them, it's a long time before the sun rises with dependable regularity again, if it ever does.
An encounter with a stranger on a street in Venice twists the fate of a young couple in McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers. The main character in The Child in Time loses his daughter to a kidnapper during a visit to the supermarket. A pair of rabid canines brings down the curtain on routine habits of mind in Black Dogs. In Enduring Love, it's the crash of a hot-air balloon; in Amsterdam, a death that wreaks havoc on an old friendship; in Atonement, a rape followed by a false accusation and wrongful imprisonment. There is a shattering bolt from the blue in nearly all of McEwan's novels.
But this quietly spectacular writer is not only laying his finger on the fragile spine of mortality. He has captured an essential quality of the bourgeois, consumerist West. He has caught its obsession with the Transfiguring Event, an obsession that reaches its most intense degree in open, vulnerable, self-conscious societies, and especially in America, where so much cultural, commercial and psychological energy is spent maintaining the illusion of a secure and gratifying present that will never end.
Americans are fascinated by the positive effects of the sudden life-changing situation in the same way that we are enthralled by the chimera of self-transformation. Is there a culture in the world that has our almost eschatological expectation of the lucky (romantic, professional, financial) break? In boxing, there is the knockout; in reality television, the final decision. The fundamental psychology behind advertising strategy is to present a purchase as a revolutionary, life-changing act. American public life is full of sudden, sensational exposures of some kind of malfeasance as the key to a personality.
There is also the trial, before which Americans sit rapt because an actual courtroom drama is a life-changing event in the making, as well as the prolonged annotation of the life-changing event that caused it. Then there's the endless prescription-making, finger-pointing and trend-proclaiming in the aftermath of an isolated disaster, with the purpose of making calamity a stimulus toward positive change or at least "closure." The majority of Hollywood movies wouldn't exist without a decisive event. (Indeed, McEwan, many of whose novels have been made into films, has unassumingly revolutionized the novel by refining into art Hollywood's mythic immediacy, not only by finding a deeper imaginative place for the transfiguring event but by inventing a new kind of sentence--at once tactile and visual--and by creating paragraphs that have a unique, wandering, cinematic plenitude.)
But the underside of this fascination with good life-changing moments is terror that all our peace and comfort will be swept away by a bad life-changing moment. The religion of the transfiguring event cuts both ways. The amount of money and effort spent in this country on preserving the fantasy that peace and comfort will be with us forever is staggering. Yet we are surrounded by brute facts to the contrary. So we live between expectation of a sudden event producing happiness and expectation of a sudden event ruining our good fortune. We inhabit a space of restless disquiet, and into that space popular culture introduces cathartic visions of disruptions, destructions, calamities, betrayals, gratifications, fulfillments and healings. When the 9/11 attacks happened, they fell right into the waiting hands of a country obsessed with the dark and the bright sides of sudden change.
They also fell right into the waiting hands of McEwan, the reigning poet of the transfiguring event, and of the murky, contradictory psychology it engenders. Saturday's narrator reflects, "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." In America, the ambiguity behind the reaction to September 11 lacked a similar masochistic twinge. The events of that day were followed by ghoulish sighs of relief from some American commentators at the prospect of other Americans' liberation from narcissism, isolationism, incompetence at history and geography, etc. And now we've sublimated our zeal for and our terror of sudden change into an effort to transform distant lands through war.