“Dazzling. . . . Powerful. . . . McEwan has shown how we . . . live today.” —The New York Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Saturday
, Ian McEwan’s highly acclaimed novel of urban life in the aftermath of 9/11.
Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon, awakens in the dark early hours of a Saturday morning in February 2003 to see a jet crossing the London sky in a trail of fire. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Manhattan, the sight brings to Henry’s mind the most dreadful assumptions. Unable to sleep, he goes down to the kitchen where his son Theo, a blues guitarist, is having a late supper. They find, eventually, that the plane was piloted by innocent Russians and has landed safely. Yet a lingering anxiety continues to disturb Henry’s Saturday. An enormous peace march is under way to protest the impending invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. On the way to his weekly squash game, a glancing collision with an oncoming BMW in a narrow street causes minor damage on both sides, but the three young men from the other car threaten Henry with a robbery and a beating. When he notices something strange about the leader of the three—a young man called Baxter, whose erratic behavior and jerky carriage suggest an early case of a devastating neurological disease—he suggests that he can help him. Embarrassed in front of his friends, Baxter lets Henry go on his way with a stunning punch to the chest, and Henry arrives at his squash game just a few minutes late. The remainder of Henry’s day is filled with a variety of familial obligations—a visit to his mother, who sits out the limbo of Alzheimer’s disease at a suburban nursing home; attendance at Theo’s rehearsal at a blues club; and, finally, the preparation of a fish stew in honor of his daughter Daisy, who is flying in from Paris having just won a major poetry prize. But the family’s reunion at this celebratory dinner is interrupted by a terrifying visit from Baxter and his friends.
With clarity, insight, and stylistic grace, Saturday
shows how one man’s life is haunted not only with apocalyptic terrors, but with fears of a more private nature—like what the hand of genetic fate may have in store, and the way these fears are intensified by love and family ties.
Ian McEwan’s previous novel, Atonement
, was hailed as a masterpiece around the world. Saturday
is perhaps even more dramatically compelling, showing how life can change in an instant, for better or for worse. It is the work of a writer at the very height of his powers.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Henry Perowne has a loving, intelligent wife, two gifted, handsome children, a large, elegant house in central London, and a job that deeply satisfies him. He appears to be, in all ways, a successful and enviable individual. He is also thoughtful, ethical, and intelligent. Do these facts make him an agreeable protagonist? What are his flaws or his failings?
2. Why is the parable of Schrödinger’s cat [p. 18] so fitting an end to the first section of the novel? Why does Henry reject it as a thought experiment? How does the image of the cat in the box address the idea of disasters that occur outside the range of our own consciousness?
3. McEwan takes his epigraph from Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog, which was published in 1964. The list describes the conditions surrounding “what it means to be a man” in Herzog’s America. How closely do these conditions still apply in the lives of Perowne and Baxter? Does McEwan, like Bellow, wish to remind his readers that “you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot”? Does Saturday depend upon the moral engagement of the
4. On the story’s opening page we are introduced to the main character as “Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon” [p. 1]. How does Henry’s professional training shape the way he thinks about the world around him, and about himself? In his work, Henry experiences a kind of self-erasure: “Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present. . . . In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness” [p. 266]. How does his love of work shape his life?
5. Saturday is unique in that it limits its time frame to a single day in recent history—February 15, 2003—a day that most readers will remember because of the massive anti-war demonstrations that took place. What is the effect of this straitened approach to time, and its attendant view of history-in-the-making? How, in light of world events since then, does it feel to look back to that day, before the war in Iraq began?
6. Clearly Baxter is a violent and deeply unstable man; is he also likeable in certain ways? How does Perowne’s view of Baxter from a neurological perspective change the reader’s relationship to him?
7. Just after September 11, 2001, Ian McEwan wrote an essay for the Guardian newspaper about the effect of watching those terrible, world-changing events on television. He wrote, “We remember what we have seen, and we daydream helplessly. Lately, most of us have inhabited the space between the terrible actuality and these daydreams. Waking before dawn, going about our business during the day, we fantasize ourselves into the events. What if it was me?”* In Saturday, Henry awakens before dawn to the sight of a flaming aircraft and is unsettled by the threat this vision presents to his city, his family, and his way of life. In what ways does Saturday communicate this sense of living with an ongoing threat of a large-scale disaster? How do the characters in the novel cope with this somewhat abstracted sense of danger?
*Read the Guardian essay: www.guardian.co.uk/wtccrash/story/0,1300,552408,00.html
8. During his visit to his mother, Henry acknowledges a belated appreciation of her way of thinking, which as a younger man he had thought trivial and unintelligent: “He had no business as a young man being condescending towards her. . . . Unlike in Daisy’s novels, moments of precise reckoning are rare in real life” [p. 159]. How does Henry communicate with his mother, and what does his attitude toward her tell us about him? In what ways does Saturday embrace the conventions of fiction, such as “moments of precise reckoning,” and how does it deny them? Does it work in the chaotic, inconclusive style of real life, or does it in fact give us moments of resolution and reckoning, forgiveness and satisfying closure?
9. In the first few pages of McEwan’s The Child in Time, a child is kidnapped during a visit to the supermarket and never seen again. In Enduring Love, the protagonist’s life changes irrevocably when he sees a man fall to his death from a hot-air balloon. At the outset of Saturday, the opening disaster appears to be coming from airborne terrorists attacking the city; the real danger comes from a revenge-seeking man who has been damaged by his own unlucky genetic fate. What effect, if any, does this unexpected shift from a public terror to a private one have on the story?
10. British critics have expressed a sense of disbelief that Henry would not recognize the lines of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,”* one of the most famous poems in English literature. Yet Henry has pointed out repeatedly that he is impatient when reading literature. Is it ironic that Henry—a character, after all, in a literary work—is so resistant to the appeal of fiction and poetry?
*Read the poem online at: http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/89.html
11. Why might McEwan have chosen “Dover Beach” as the poem that saves Daisy by appealing so powerfully to Baxter [pp. 228–30]? What does it mean to him? What emotions does the poem’s speaker express?
12. McEwan’s choice to locate the narrative perspective within a single point of view (Henry’s) focuses the reader on the subject of human consciousness. Stuck in traffic just before his collision with Baxter, Henry thinks, “A second can be a long time in introspection” [p. 80]. How does the description of Henry’s introspection, which makes up a large part of the novel, affect its pace? If you have read other novels (like those of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, or James Joyce) that delve as closely as Saturday into the representation of human consciousness, how does McEwan’s approach differ?
13. Perowne takes a wry view of both the American President and the British Prime Minister. What is wrong, in Henry’s opinion, with both of these men? What motivates them? What does Henry and Rosalind’s brief meeting with Tony Blair expose about men in power?
14. Operating on Baxter, Perowne thinks, “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? . . . He knows it will come, the secret will be revealed–over decades, as long as the scientists and the institutions remain in place, the explanations will refine themselves into an irrefutable truth about consciousness” [pp. 262—63]. Do you agree with Henry’s faith in science? In terms of the problems presented in Saturday, what can science solve, and what can it not?
15. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a wealthy society woman learns at a party she is hosting that a shell-shocked veteran of World War I has killed himself by jumping from a window. She feels guilty and ashamed that she hasn’t shared his suffering and fears that her privileged life has cut her off from real empathy. Does Henry’s decision to operate on Baxter reflect a similar sense of guilt or responsibility? Why does Henry not share Rosalind’s desire for revenge?
16. McEwan is interested in the contrast between the human capacity for empathy, which is strengthened by the act of reading fiction, and our capacity for violence against each other: “We are capable of acts of extraordinary destruction. I think it’s inherent. I think one of the great tasks of art is really to explore that. . . . I personally think the novel, above all forms in literature, is able to investigate human nature and try and understand those two sides, all those many, many sides of human nature.”* How does Saturday engage in this juxtaposition of violence with empathy? Which of the characters in the novel are most attuned to the experience of others? If you have read Atonement, are the two novels similar or different in their handling of the question of imaginative empathy?
*Read the complete Frontline interview:
17. Saturday features several bravura passages of descriptive writing, such as the confrontation between Henry and Baxter [pp. 81–100], the squash game [pp. 104–118], and the surgical operation on Baxter’s brain [pp. 253–66]. What is the effect of these passages, and what do they tell us about McEwan’s style? What sets McEwan apart from other contemporary writers of literary fiction?
18. Henry doesn’t join the peace march because to do so would express a more uncomplicated view of events than he actually holds. He looks, with hindsight, at the ideologies of the previous century: “Now we think we do see, how do things stand? After the ruinous experiments of the lately deceased century, after so much vile behaviour, so many deaths, a queasy agnosticism has settled around these matters of justice and redistributed wealth. No more big ideas. The world must improve, if at all, by tiny steps. People mostly take an existential view–having to sweep the streets for a living looks like simple bad luck. It’s not a visionary age. The streets need to be clean. Let the unlucky enlist” [p. 74]. How would you characterize his moral point of view?
19. For Henry, both the fiery plane and the peace march invoke thoughts of terrorism: “London, his small part of it, lies wide open, impossible to defend, waiting for its bomb, like a hundred other cities. Rush hour will be a convenient time. . . . The authorities agree an attack’s inevitable” [p. 286]. One reviewer observed that in the four years that have passed since 9/11, “Security . . . has become the great obsession. . . . The prevailing public mood has come to resemble closely that of an Ian McEwan novel. Constant menace, punctuated with nightmarish atrocities; the insult of the world’s continuing normality: these are things we all understand very well” [Theo Tait, The Times Literary Supplement (London), February 9, 2005]. What is it like to read this novel in the wake not only of 9/11 but also of the July 2005 attacks on London? In what ways does it reflect the changes in your own life and consciousness?
About this Author
Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot, England, in 1948. The son of a Scots army major, he lived in the Far East, Germany, and North Africa while growing up. He studied literature at the University of Sussex and writing at the University of East Anglia, where he worked with Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury. In addition to the bestselling Atonement
, he has written eight other novels, including The Cement Garden
, The Comfort of Strangers
, Enduring Love
, and the Booker Award–winning Amsterdam
, and two collections of stories, First Love, Last Rites
and In Between the Sheets
. He has also written several scripts, including The Imitation Game
, The Ploughman’s Lunch
, Sour Sweet
, The Good Son
, and The Innocent
Saul Bellow, Herzog
; Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: An Introduction
; Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
; Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
; Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle
; James Joyce, Ulysses
; Christof Koch, The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
; Richard Price, Samaritan
; Philip Roth, American Pastoral
; Frank Vertosick, Jr., M.D., When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales of Neurosurgery
; Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway