This one was a test.
For my classic lit challenge I’ve been choosing novels that have weathered decades. As in at least five. My reasoning: among the ocean of books, only quality literature will survive the currents of time.
I deviated for Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. It was only published in 2005. Not enough time has passed to tell if it will be floating around used book sales a hundred years from now.
My verdict: I don’t think so.
First, why I picked it up. I’d read Enduring Love by him a few years ago and I liked it a lot. I’d seen the movie Atonement, which is based on a book he wrote, and I liked it even more. I remember when Saturday came out and it got rave reviews. So, there it was, on the tables of Grace Van Vorst Church’s book sale, for just a buck.
The good: I read Saturday in a single day (a Sunday, not a Saturday). I was still in a wickedly off-kilter state of mind so I wandered into Manhattan and read chapters at various places along the Hudson riverfront, and I kept on doing so until Saturday (the book) had ended.
I NEVER read a book in a single day. Saturday, however, was fluid and seamless and kept me going.
So what’s it about? It follows a well-off and well-regarded middle-aged London neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, during the course of a single day: February 15, 2003. As Henry navigates his unimpressive Saturday routine he ponders such things as the love of his family (very devoted all around), fears about terrorism, the looming Iraq War and his general place in life. In a lot of ways it reminded me of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in that it focused intensely on one person’s life confined to a single day. But Joyce and Woolf pulled it off. McEwan fell short. I think I know why.
Henry Perowne has no memorable flaws. He’s skillful and dutiful and faithful and even tempered. He’s boring. There were opportunities to delve into his psyche, burrow into his past, but the earliest we get is adolescence, and one that is fine enough. I wished McEwan had used the Joyce/Woolf example and dug deep into Henry’s shit.
Nope. None of that.
Another problem hearkens back to why Saturday was so praised when it came out. Way back in 2005 the contentious Iraq War was underway. Saturday takes place during a massive British anti-war rally, and Henry spends many pages ruminating on the merits of the war. He gets into an impassioned argument with his daughter Daisy (most of the passion was on her side), which mirrors the arguments of the day, almost in a textbook fashion.
Topicality can be awesome. But what happens when, with the passage of time, that enormously world-changing event ends up not being such a big deal? A decade plus on, the Iraq War seems as consequential as the Boer War in popular culture, so the debate over its merits before the fact have zero tension. Time moves that fast. McEwan is one of today’s literary heavyweights, but I’m guessing if he wrote this same exact novel today, it wouldn’t get published.
There’s much to like about Saturday. The writing is great, and the action, especially toward the last quarter of the book, was unexpected and shocking (if not totally believable). Like I said, I read Saturday in one day.
Will it last a hundred hears on? I’m guessing McEwan’s Atonement will earn that honor.
Next up, a classic that made my skin crawl.