The Imagination of Disaster

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.


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.

Saturday unfolds over twenty-four hours in February 2003, on the day of the massive demonstration in London against the invasion of Iraq. Driving to his weekly Saturday squash game with his squash partner, the “physically affectionate, energetic, direct in manner” American anesthesiologist Jay Strauss, Henry Perowne bends a traffic rule with the permission of a distracted policeman, finds himself on a deserted street not far from a pub called the Jeremy Bentham, and gets into a car accident with a volatile, thuggish guy named Baxter. As the city fills with the sounds of hundreds of thousands of marching protesters, the highly cultivated neurologist haughtily insults the lower-class Baxter, who assaults Henry. But the doctor, noticing Baxter’s trembling hands and turbulent mood swings, realizes that his assailant has the beginnings of Huntington’s disease, and he wriggles out of a beating by falsely telling Baxter that he can help him find treatment for what is in fact an incurable condition. Henry succeeds in confusing his attacker and makes his escape. But a humiliated Baxter develops a dangerous obsession with Henry that eventually puts the surgeon, his lawyer-wife Rosalind, two children and famous-poet father-in-law at risk of being murdered.

Two transfiguring events shape the novel. There is the car accident, which echoes the sudden upheaval of 9/11, and which brings into Henry’s life Baxter, a disenfranchised person, who is a kind of echo of the hatred and anger of the disenfranchised, militant, impoverished Third World. Certainly he poses to Henry the ethical challenge presented by poor, starving countries to the affluent West, and Henry treats him–unthinkingly, innocently–with a reflexive contempt not unlike the West’s indifference to the Third World. He also poses to the suddenly vulnerable Henry a threat of annihilation similar to the threats made against the West. These possible implicit resonances are impressions, associations, intuitions that grow entwined with other plausible meanings as the story begins to strike the primal chords of myth. They never acquire the independent meaning of a neat allegorical subtext.

But the fundamental transfiguring event in Saturday is 9/11, and also what you might call–at the time when the novel takes place–that day’s shadow event, the looming war in Iraq. Henry’s inability to make clear, decisive sense of 9/11, or of the justification for war, is the hothouse atmosphere in which he tries to figure out what, if any, his responsibilities are toward Baxter. Thus the Jeremy Bentham pub, named after the famous philosopher of self-interest, and the complicating details of the traffic infraction, and the policeman’s blind eye–a suspension of the rules not available to people like Baxter–and Henry’s arrogance, and Baxter’s helpless susceptibility to the violent impulses stirred up by his illness.

Though it includes some political argument–mostly between Henry and his twentyish daughter Daisy, a gifted poet–Saturday is not a political book. Like nearly all of McEwan’s work, his latest novel is about the sudden relativizing of perspective in the wake of startling change, though Henry is more resigned to his uncertainties than abruptly transformed or nearly destroyed by them, as are most of McEwan’s protagonists. McEwan’s fiction explores the illusions and delusions that people clutch for as they scramble to readapt to a new mental landscape, just as they might reach for trees and rocks if they found themselves tumbling down the side of a mountain. This makes him the perfect novelist to write about 9/11 and its aftermath. No two people in his novels attach the same significance to the same event. The meaning of September 11 is, at this moment, likewise up for grabs. No one can say in any clear, decisive way what 9/11 signifies in political or historical terms. No honest person, that is.

The meaning of transfiguring events in McEwan’s work is always a private affair. After Joe Rose, the science writer in Enduring Love, fails to rescue a man in a hot-air balloon, he begins to doubt his courage and his ability to transcend his own self-interest to save another person’s life–something like the questions that preoccupy Henry Perowne. For Jed Parry, a stranger who also tries to help with the balloon, the accident is the beginning of a mad obsession with Rose–something like Baxter’s fixation on Henry. For Clarissa, Joe’s wife, Joe’s stricken conscience is silly, and his (accurate) claim that Parry is stalking him is a symptom of Joe’s declining sanity.

In Black Dogs, the attack of a pair of rabid hounds on a woman convinces her that evil is real, a revelation that causes her to withdraw from the world into religion; the same event strengthens her husband’s radical scientific opposition to religion, producing an irreparable break between them. Yet the attack leads to a fortuitous event that holds their estranged family together. In The Child in Time, the loss of a child brings out the lost child hidden within a bereft father, who begins to see behind adult pretense a vast scrimmage of childlike egos and appetites, no two grown-ups sharing the same values except through the miraculous dispensation of love. The death of a mutual former lover fills the two old friends in Amsterdam with a mortal dread that alters each one’s sense of reality in very different ways, propelling them along divergent paths of delusion until they fatally collide. In The Comfort of Strangers, murder follows inevitably from the contrasting inner lives of the killers, a deceptively innocent English couple, and their victims, a decadent Venetian husband and wife: a difference between responses to erotic impulse that is like the difference between civilizations.

But the pièce de résistance of clashing perceptions in McEwan is Atonement, a tale about a vain little girl named Briony with an ambitious imagination, who sends the wrong man to jail based on her stubborn, frightened, indignant misperception of who did what to whom. In the novel’s final pages, the narrator discloses that she is that same little girl, now an elderly professional writer. Yet the wonder of Atonement is that it is not self-referential; it is not “literary” in the slightest way. Briony’s retelling of the events she caused does not amount to the postmodern argument of an “unreliable narrator” (a k a “invitation to a nap”). It is an instance of a woman deceiving other people because she is still selfishly deceiving herself.

Briony wrote her story as an “atonement” for the pain she caused, but her novel is really the same assertion of ego that caused all the pain in the first place. The only fact that she changed in her tale, she tells us, is the fate of its two lovers, her older sister and the man the young Briony wrongly accused of raping their cousin. The narrator reunites them at the end of Atonement when, in actuality, they died young, before they could marry and make a life together. You believe the older Briony because she has no reason to lie, now that she is nearing the end of her life. Yet her fabrication of a happy ending is also a sort of trick. By admitting that she lied about the couple’s fate at the end, she is implying that in life, and in honest art, there are no happy endings–serious, honest novels aren’t written as therapeutic “atonements” to clear the conscience of their authors. This is true, but if human existence affords no happy endings, then the tragedy Briony created is less her fault than an inevitable outcome. Her revelation that the couple died young turns her “atonement” into self-exculpation.

But Briony has still produced a moral achievement. She has sympathetically inhabited the lives of other people. Describing her aspiring young literary self, the older narrator has the girl overheatedly anticipate that as a novelist she will enjoy “the prospect of freedom, of being delivered from the cumbrous struggle between good and bad, heroes and villains…. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.”

Briony is right; life is too confusing, too compounded by misunderstanding to be a simple matter of Good vs. Bad. But it is self-serving for Briony, who once caused tragic confusion–who once did something clearly wrong–to embrace moral ambiguity. The book is at once an act of redemption–Briony has opened herself up to the lives of other people–and a disingenuous alibi, since she produces more confusion by telling another lie. In its restrained portrayal of truth, goodness and love as relative and illusory, yet also thickly, concretely, consequentially real–two simultaneously defining qualities–Atonement crystallizes McEwan’s themes.

The semisubjective mist of a world half-created by projecting egos; the haze of illusions so necessary that they become stubborn realities, only to vanish suddenly; the fact of impermanence as a permanent condition, which is an enlightening truth revealed only in moments of sheer terror–this is McEwan’s primal matter. Perhaps this is why, more and more, he brings a scientific perspective into his books. Science seems to offer him an Archimedean point from which to view, with varying degrees of irony, the helter-skelter human sagas created by the phantasms of mind and emotion. In fact, McEwan is the only serious novelist today who can convincingly integrate science into his work. But science, for all its hard objectivity, only brings the mystery of subjectivity into sharper view. As Henry muses to himself:

Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain’s fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious?

Saturday is a commentary on how politics gets invented from the stuff of emotion the way mind is created out of the brain. Read (and written) in the light of events following the Iraq invasion, this carefully ambiguous tale about the “brightly wrought illusion” of unstable selves amounts to a cool, temperate, humane protest against belligerent certainty. Indeed, ambiguity is inscribed in the novel’s very title. Saturday is the holiest day of the week for some people and just an ordinary day for others, a crucial discrepancy in a book haunted by religious conflict.

Henry’s consciousness is haunted by his awareness of the mind’s inherent instability, its mutability and fragility. His mother has Alzheimer’s and her identity has disintegrated. Reading a biography of Darwin that his daughter Daisy gave him as a gift, Henry is unsettled by the fact of mortality; he is struck “by how easily an existence, its ambitions, networks of family and friends, all its cherished stuff, solidly possessed, could so entirely vanish.” Recalling the day they cleared out his mother’s house after taking her to a nursing home, he remembers thinking at the time that “her life, all lives, seemed tenuous when he saw how quickly, with what ease, all the trappings, all the fine details of a lifetime could be packed and scattered, or junked.” You could say that this is a state of mind imported into our lives by the attacks on 9/11. But in the context of McEwan’s world, Henry’s obsessions are also the universal mental soil–the comfortable and technologically protected yet, for that very reason, open and vulnerable Western mind–that has allowed 9/11 to provide moral, political and intellectual pretexts out of all proportion to the events of that day.

McEwan seems to craft Henry as a kind of Western Everyman of the privileged variety. He is rational, capable, cultured, happy and good–he is more decent than most people, despite his upper-class complacency. He is faithful to his wife, whom he deeply loves, archly wondering at one point if his lack of interest in acquiring a younger mistress is the result of some kind of character defect. He deeply loves his children–McEwan’s sympathetic inhabiting of Theo, Henry’s teenage son, a blues guitarist, beautifully alive and tender, and his account of Theo’s playing is, like his evocation of music in Amsterdam, as uncannily intuitive as his breathtaking descriptions of Henry operating on the brain. McEwan is not only the greatest living writer in England; now that Bellow has stopped writing, and now that Roth’s mastery of le mot juste has exploded into a brilliant but often undisciplined torrent of mots, McEwan is writing better English prose than anybody. The Nobel Prize committee could start making itself respectable again by giving him the nod.

Given Henry’s self-knowledge, his gifts and his humanity, you’re tempted to identify his views with the narrator’s. His reasons for supporting an Iraq invasion are conscientious, anguished, half-hearted and based mostly on accounts of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities that he’s heard from an Iraqi exile named Professor Taleb, one of Saddam’s victims and Henry’s patient (though Henry is something of a dove in reaction to the hawkish Strauss). Henry is an admirable man, and you smile when you learn that he has no intention of reading the unnamed fiction by Joseph Conrad his daughter has given him. Henry’s salvation lies in his self-forgetful work (“work–the ultimate badge of health”) the concrete unambiguity of surgery; in Heart of Darkness, the only sanctuary from nothingness is skeptical, decent Marlow’s self-forgetful labors on the concrete unambiguity of his boat’s engine.

But it would be a mistake to confuse Henry with the narrator, or with the novel’s essential meaning, or with the author himself. McEwan always surrounds his main characters with a space of gentle irony; Atonement is where his detachment shows its hand. In Saturday, he meticulously qualifies Henry’s perspective, first by giving Daisy’s arguments against the war greater prescience, then by having Henry’s intellectual outlook ride volatilely on his emotions. In the novel’s opening pages Henry, spooked by the burning plane, recalls with alarm the British political scientist Fred Halliday’s prediction (Saturday has numerous references to real people, so light-handedly done that the novel gains a type of fictional fourth dimension) that 9/11 began a world crisis that would “take a hundred years to resolve.” Later, driving his new Mercedes, feeling confident and prosperous, Henry remembers a statement by the famous British immunologist, Peter Medawar, who also happened to be of Arab descent: “To deride the hopes of progress is the ultimate fatuity.” Halliday’s lugubrious forecast is nonsense, Henry reassures himself. But hours afterward, when he promises Baxter that treatment is available for his disease, a note of hope that is an echo of Medawar’s “hopes of progress,” Baxter reacts with contemptuous disbelief, and Henry thinks to himself that Baxter “is right to pick up on the fatuity, the feebleness of the idea.” Not only does Henry abandon his optimism about progress–the reversal turns stunningly on the word “fatuity”–he tries to use the illusion of progress to trick a man whom society has left behind.

McEwan virtuosically molds theme out of the modulations of character in just this way. In the novel’s concluding pages, he even sets Henry up for an upheaval after the book ends. He has Henry taking stock at home as Saturday is about to pass into Sunday, complacently predicting the future to himself, mapping out his life, and Rosalind’s, his children’s and his mother’s. But he is building these certainties about the future at the end of a day when all of his fundamental certainties have been undermined. Like all plan-making human creatures, Henry is going to be surprised by the future, a boundary that defines the limits of anyone’s perspective.

Casting doubt on the power of mind to organize reality must be why McEwan has chosen as the novel’s epigraph a long passage from Saul Bellow’s Herzog (aside from the odd fact that every British writer with an intellectual or emotional stake in America tries to lay claim to Bellow. He is their Plymouth Rock, or maybe their Rhodesia. Or maybe it’s just that he won the Nobel Prize). McEwan, however, makes deep, authentic use of Bellow. Herzog is a novel about an intellectual who discovers the inefficacy and unreliability of ideas, a revelation that comes to him when he has a minor car accident while behind the wheel with his very young daughter sitting beside him. Saturday not only has an epiphanic car accident; McEwan has Henry reflecting in transparently Bellovian manner, and his novel is laced with echoes of Herzog. This is also perhaps a way of capturing the entwined fates of England and America at this historical moment. Or maybe this respectful McEwanizing of Bellow is McEwan’s answer to Martin Amis’s attempts to become Bellow.

Henry, however, has something Herzog did not, which is the capacity to act consequentially on reality. He has the ability to repair a human life, even Baxter’s. Yet, as McEwan stresses again and again, Henry lacks something fundamental–an artistic imagination. He hates fiction. He especially hates the characters in magical realist fiction, one of whom he found particularly galling: “one visionary saw through a pub window his parents as they had been some weeks after his conception, discussing the possibility of aborting him.” The scene is from McEwan’s The Child in Time, and Henry’s aversion to it is playful proof of his distance from the author.

In fact, it is Baxter who has the artistic imagination. In a scene of terror strangely animated by the spirit of comedy, someone’s recitation of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” has the most remarkable transforming effect on Baxter, a moment that swerves the narrative in another surprising direction. The fact that the scene turns on Arnold, who would not have let the likes of Baxter into his front yard, amplifies its weird hidden ironies. These are the poem’s famous last lines, which describe a world that

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

There is no “help from pain” for poor Baxter, yet both he and Henry are living in a precarious situation in which, somewhere in the Middle East, “ignorant armies clash by night.” It is not enough for decent Henry to tell himself that Baxter’s desperate social situation is the caprice of a bad gene, and that therefore Henry should do all he can to help Baxter, up to the limit of his self-interest, his self-preservation. The moment created by Arnold’s poem–Henry has no idea who Arnold was–proves the elusive existence in Baxter of an imaginative sympathy that is even stronger than Henry’s own kindness. It proves that Baxter has an equal value as a human being, and an equal claim to the dignity society confers on Henry, no matter what Baxter’s genes and social class have determined.

There are no words for the feeling that irradiates Baxter when he hears the poem. It is mute and inarticulable, a fusion of mind and matter, love and biology. This intuition embedded in the flesh is the origin of McEwan’s thoroughgoing materialism, expressed with Shakespearean power at the end of The Child in Time, when Stephen Lewis is helping Julie, his wife, give birth and sees the head of the baby emerge:

That it was suddenly and obviously there, a person not from another town or from a different country but from life itself, the simplicity of that, was communicating to him a clarity and precision of purpose.

That clarity and precision of purpose–to live, and to love–come to McEwan’s characters only in the wake of a transfiguring event. It’s these intimate catastrophes that create the hunger in all of McEwan’s dark, disturbing fictions for more love, more life. How unlike the effect of 9/11, which has propelled some people past the limit of self-interest and self-preservation into the desire for more violence, and more death. This extraordinary book is not a political novel. It is a novel about consciousness that illuminates the sources of politics.

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