Sage of Anxiety

On Jan. 31, 2005, the BBC made it official: On the evening news, the anchor gravely announced the publication of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday, and proclaimed the author “the international voice of British fiction.” As far as anyone in London publishing circles can remember, this marked the first time that a novel has made the evening news just because of its literary merit. The BBC was cheerleading- Hey! Here comes a good book!-and also wrapping the establishment’s flag around a writer who was once very much on the fringe, whose early books were odd and disturbing, deliberately shocking.

British critics welcomed Saturday with a chorus of adulation verging on awe. But though he had every reason to be boisterously pleased with himself in early March, when I visited him at home-a lavishly large house on a miraculously quiet square smack-dab in the center of London-Mr. McEwan greeted me with his usual structured calm. (He looks like a gentle, brainy, bespectacled version of Clint Eastwood, with eyes that narrow dangerously and an air of unhurried certainty.) “Publishing is made of superlatives,” he said coolly. “I got very nice press. I was amazed, actually, because after Atonement I thought, ‘Surely now is my turn for a really good kicking.'” Actually, the huge success of Atonement, which came out in England in 2001 and sold 220,000 copies there in hardcover, was more like an overture to the trumpet blast reception of Saturday.

Timothy Garton Ash, the Oxford historian and political writer, author of Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West, thinks his friend Ian has been enjoying something more than a triumphant book launch. “It’s a coronation,” Mr. Garton Ash insisted. “It’s now an accepted cultural fact that Ian is the leading English novelist of his generation.”

Again, Mr. McEwan refuses to be wowed: “I was at a party the other day for Ishiguro’s new novel. Julian Barnes was there, and he came up to Ish and me and said to Ish in greeting, ‘How nice to meet this month’s world’s best novelist.'” Mr. McEwan skipped a beat before delivering his own deadpan verdict: “I had my month.” (And more-in mid-March, six weeks after its U.K. publication, Saturday was still No. 2 on The Times of London’s best-seller list, outselling John Grisham-and Kazuo Ishiguro.)

The publication party for Saturday, at a private club in South Kensington, was stuffed with London’s literary stars. Messrs. Ishiguro and Barnes were on hand, along with fellow novelists David Lodge, Margaret Drabble, Alan Hollinghurst and William Boyd. The theater world was represented by playwrights Harold Pinter, David Hare and Michael Frayn, and the director Richard Eyre. Escaping from the crowd, I ran into novelist Edna O’Brien, who was staggered by the sheer number of guests. She told me, “I asked Ian, ‘Do you know all these people?’-and he said, ‘ All of them.'”

Ian McEwan’s exalted literary reputation-sole source of his celebrity-now rests securely on a dozen books. If Saturday had been just half as good as it is (and I’d say it’s his second best, after Atonement), he’d still be in the first tier of novelists writing in English today. The keynote of his work in the last 15 years has been a strictly controlled, unobtrusive style, frighteningly vivid set-pieces, careful plotting, and a palpable sense of the author’s intelligence and sincerity. In some of the earlier novels, Mr. McEwan was almost too tightly controlled-there were scenes that were obvious showpieces, too dazzlingly written. He could certainly stoke up the heat-but he couldn’t seem to do it without the reader noticing his fingers on the thermostat. But then, in Atonement, he managed to maintain an elevated temperature from beginning to end: Though divided into three very different parts, it felt like one gorgeous whole. Every scene grabbed you.

Saturday feels similarly whole and integrated, partly because the entire novel takes place in the course of one day, and we’re never more than an arm’s length from our hero, Henry Perowne, a prominent neurosurgeon. Most of the time we’re inside Perowne’s head, experiencing what Mr. McEwan calls the “bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch”-or we’re perched on his shoulder, watching his every move.

The novel takes place in London on Feb. 15, 2003, against the backdrop of a massive antiwar demonstration. The events of 9/11 loom large in memory, and the coming war is a noisy, divisive worry, but Henry Perowne has it good. At times, indeed, the novel reads like a confession of bourgeois contentment. As Mr. McEwan explained, “I’ve always been stirred and slightly provoked by that cliché derived from Henry de Montherlant about happiness writing white …. I thought, what if you grant a man all kinds of corners in his life that are happy? Give him sex and love and wine and food and family life and interesting work; strip any immediate domestic and professional problems.”

What you get is a man whose life is an echo of Ian McEwan’s. Henry Perowne lives in a house that resembles Mr. McEwan’s in virtually every elegant and expensive particular-even the brace of squab defrosting by the fridge in the large, frighteningly clean McEwan kitchen fits right in with the Perowne lifestyle. Perowne’s wife has a high-powered career with a major London newspaper-so does Mr. McEwan’s. Perowne has two kids, roughly college age, talented, well-adjusted progeny with whom he gets along well-ditto Mr. McEwan. One of the incidental pleasures of Saturday is a brilliant description of a tightly contested squash match; though the 56-year-old novelist has pretty much had to give up squash due to knee injuries, the 48-year-old brain surgeon plays on-at about Mr. McEwan’s level.

They’re alike in matters large and small: They share a genuine ambivalence about the war in Iraq and a vocal, uncompromising materialism; they’re both fond of the blues and squeamish about thrusting live lobsters into boiling water. In two important respects, however, they’re very different. Perowne’s dedication to his high-intensity profession has left him somewhat narrow, almost a philistine-he has, notably, no taste for literature. And though he’s a well-meaning fellow with a social conscience in good working order, he’s a bit too comfortable with his plush place in the world, the obvious sign of this being the pleasure he takes in his huge silver Mercedes: “[C]ertain small things still stir him particularly, like the way the car idles without vibration.”

I found Perowne reassuringly dull-but dull nonetheless. I wanted less of the successful neurosurgeon and more scenery, perhaps, more action … more McEwan. Henry Perowne is never perverse, never illogical- the oddest thing he does in the novel is to pee sitting down on the toilet. Ian McEwan was once notorious for the perversity of his early novels; they were, as he himself has said, “sexually strange, dark”-and they earned him the nickname “Ian McAbre.” Has he put all that behind him? He’s not telling. In interviews, he’s as controlled, as self-assured, as his novels. A dry, almost bitter wit, a quiet laugh, a thoughtful cadence to his speech-these are the tell-tale signs of a rationalist in confident, relaxed command of his faculties. He doesn’t slip up.

But his alter ego does. A fender-bender that slightly damages his Mercedes leads to a confrontation with a thug named Baxter, which significantly reduces Henry Perowne’s comfort level. Baxter punches him: “[T]he blow … lands on his sternum with colossal force, so that it seems to him … that there surges throughout his body a sharp ridge, a shock wave, of high blood pressure, a concussive thrill that carries with it not so much pain as an electric jolt of stupefaction and a brief deathly chill that has a visual component of blinding, snowy whiteness.” The scuffle is quickly over, Perowne makes a lucky escape, but an element of fear has been introduced, and in the novel’s tense climax, violence returns to threaten the brain surgeon’s tidy universe. He and his family are terrorized: The worries of the wide world are brought home.

Here the tight quotidian focus of Saturday intersects with the larger concerns of the historical moment: We see a local manifestation of terrorism operating on a personal level, played out in the Perowne living room-an exact fictional copy of the grand, high-ceilinged room in which Mr. McEwan and I were talking.

“If we hadn’t watched 9/11 on our screens,” he told me, “it would just be one in a list of terrible things that have happened around the world; it would not haunt us the way it does.” Mr. McEwan wrote movingly about 9/11 in the British press in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and he argues that the event has had a profound and lasting impact: “America changed. American foreign policy changed. The whole axis of attention changed.” His sympathy for the U.S. under terrorist attack did not lead him to support the war in Iraq-but to the consternation of some of his friends on the left, he didn’t oppose it, either. (Henry Perowne, sitting in traffic on the day of the largest antiwar rally in British history, “experiences his own ambivalence as a form of vertigo, of dizzy indecision.”)

Discussing the war two years after the first bombs dropped, Mr. McEwan was still ambivalent. He spoke with conviction, a slow unspooling of informed opinion that left him securely astride the fence. “The occupation was a mess. An administration that never really believed in the power of the state was in a position of having to invent a state halfway around the world …. I was sort of heartened by the elections. One of the most distasteful aspects of some corners of the left here-and I’m told it’s true in the States, too-is that they were cheering on the insurgency. They would rather that democracy in Iraq fail than that Bush succeed, which is either deeply cynical or amazingly parochial politics. I don’t give a toss about what happens to Bush’s reputation, but I do care that there should be stability in Iraq. I want him to succeed.”

Though he makes an effort not to be reflexively dismissive of George Bush (“When he talks, I have to remind myself that just because he’s saying it doesn’t mean it isn’t true”), he has little use for the President’s domestic policies. “George Bush might have visions about democracy around the world, but he certainly has no vision for the kind of country he wants to lead. He has 19th-century rentier-class politics.”

Mr. McEwan moved from Oxford to central London not long after 9/11, when the British government was still warning of the inevitability of a terror attack on the capital. “Because it hasn’t happened since September 2001, slowly it fades-but it’s still there,” he said, and pointed out that as many as 100,000 jihadists may have gone through training camps in Afghanistan. “And we’ve had Madrid.” He paused before summing up: “There are some people with hateful creeds who can’t wait to blow us up-in the name of God.”

That last phrase came out slowly, shaded with anger and contempt. Henry Perowne is derisive about the “primitive thinking of the supernaturally inclined”; Mr. McEwan was bluntly dismissive: “I’m impatient with religious belief.” And he showed no patience with fuzzy euphemism, either: “The word ‘spiritual’-I just don’t understand what people mean. A bearded guy in the sky? Lofty feelings? Is artistic experience ‘spiritual’? I hear that word and I reach for my gun.”

Bang! Balanced against this intemperate anti-religious volley is his celebration of the wonder of materialism, which Mr. McEwan called “the most freeing of worldviews.” In Saturday, Perowne offers this one-sentence hymn in praise of Darwinism as an ideal “creation myth”: “An unimaginable sweep of time, numberless generations spawning by infinitesimal steps complex living beauty out of inert matter, driven on by the blind furies of random mutation, natural selection and environmental change, with the tragedy of forms continually dying, and lately the wonder of minds emerging and with them morality, love, art, cities-and the unprecedented bonus of this story happening to be demonstrably true.” The infinitely slow progress up from primal ooze leads at last to “the brief privilege of consciousness.”

Which brings us to the brain. In preparation for writing Saturday, Mr. McEwan spent two years watching a neurosurgeon at work. “I found I wasn’t remotely squeamish-I was far too interested in seeing a brain. For a materialist like myself, to see a brain is an immense attraction. One can’t believe, looking at this material thing, that it’s conscious-or will be when the anesthetic wears off.”

There’s a hitch, though: “The repellent side of brain surgery,” he admitted, “is the smell. The saw-the craniotome-singes the bones as it cuts … horrible smell.” He produced this unpleasant fact with evident satisfaction, leaning back on the leather couch, legs crossed at the ankle and hands locked behind his head.

At the beginning of Saturday, and then again at the end, we follow Perowne into the operating theater and observe closely as he performs brain surgery. The procedures are described with remarkable transparency, the prose so lucid it seems to vanish from sight. When Perowne steps back and contemplates the exposed brain, however, the writing takes on the textures and tints of high rhetoric: “For all the recent advances, it’s still not known how this well-protected one kilogram or so of cells actually encodes information, how it hold experiences, memories, dreams and intentions. He doesn’t doubt that in years to come, the coding mechanism will be known …. 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 center.”

At work, Henry Perowne “feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy.” He exerts a god-like dominion over his world-just like a novelist. As Mr. McEwan acknowledged, “When any writer gets deep into someone else’s work, there’s always the leakage of self-reflection.” He told me that he orchestrated the final surgery scene “so that it would be about writing-the execution of writing would have something to do with surgery itself.”

Here’s how eager Mr. McEwan was to connect the science of neurosurgery with an artist’s act of creation: In early drafts of the novel, he had Perowne dipping a paintbrush in a bowl of Betadine solution and painting the skin of a patient’s skull a “sunflower yellow.” When Mr. McEwan finally showed the book to the brain surgeon whose work he’d been observing, the surgeon said, “I don’t use a paintbrush.” Mr. McEwan refused to believe it: “I said, ‘I saw you with a paintbrush.’ He said, ‘No, no, it’s a sponge on a clamp.’ So I said, ‘Don’t you-please- ever use a paintbrush? Does anyone?’ He said, ‘Unheard of.'” So in the interest of accuracy, Mr. McEwan swapped the paintbrush for a sponge on a clamp. “I had to settle for just a sense of that Van Gogh–like yellow Betadine skin.”

Several years ago, when I was interviewing him for the Paris Review “Writers at Work” series, Mr. McEwan told me that his “ideal” prose would be “a canvas of pale eggshell to which is added a set of vivid strokes.” This time around, he proclaimed-with a hint of self-mockery-a preference for an “Augustan” style: “I want clarity and precision and understanding.” (He’s come a long way since the days of “Ian McAbre.”)

Michiko Kakutani wrote, in an otherwise celebratory review, that Saturday is “too indebted” to Mrs. Dalloway-but in early March, when I mentioned Virginia Woolf’s novel 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. The predictable brain surgeon says, predictably, that he wants from novels something more difficult than fantasy: He wants a “re-enactment of the plausible”-and that’s exactly what his creator has delivered.

Though Saturday is not a book that entirely enthralled me-that made me forget “the brightly wrought illusion” of my self-I admired it on every page: The novelist has achieved a complete mastery of his craft. There are no accidents here, only willed effects. The climactic scene is very nearly incredible-the plausible stretched to its uttermost-but the spell is unbroken, disbelief remains suspended. Mr. McEwan acknowledged the difficulty of making such a precarious set-piece work: “It’s like spinning plates on a stick. I want to get to that moment by steps that make sense in the recognizable physical world.”

For now, he has taken a break from his labors. “I really like not writing for a bit,” he said, “but at some point I’ll hate it-it could be a year from now, could be six months. This is actually a nice phase.”

Timothy Garton Ash warned that there are other reasons why this “nice phase” may not last, that his friend may not find it comfortable to be king (he went so far as to supply the relevant quote: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”). “Ian will surely have to contend with the jealousy of contemporaries,” he said. But Mr. McEwan wasn’t about to let that trouble him. “My old literary chums have been very sweet,” he purred.

Last week, en route to New York to do publicity for Saturday, Mr. McEwan took a detour to Uruguay to visit Martin Amis, an old literary chum who was himself once hailed as the leading British novelist of his generation. “There”-to quote from the Herzog epigraph to Saturday-“is the way it runs.”

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.

Sage of Anxiety