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  • Anosognosia, or the Political Unconscious:Limits of Vision in Ian McEwan's Saturday
  • Martin Ryle (bio)

No British literary novelist has recently been enjoying more favorable reviews than Ian McEwan.1 Many of McEwan's novels combine eventful—sometimes violent—narratives with an explicit address to social and political topics. (This is the case in his latest work, Solar [2010], as it is in Saturday.) This has made part of their claim to serious attention, even if a purist might object that the rather melodramatic plots are not always well integrated with the serious themes. The public, historical dimension of Saturday was noted by reviewers: "Artistically, morally and politically, he excels;" "A detailed portrait of an age, of how we live now;" "An allegory of the post-9/11 world."2

This novel actively solicits a political reading. The streets of the city where McEwan sets his protagonist's professional and domestic life are dominated by a political event: the very large demonstration that took place in London on 15 February 2003 against the imminent invasion of Iraq. The action occurs entirely on that day, and while it is scarcely about the impending war, or about "Islamic terrorism" (77) (the phrase is used by the protagonist, consultant neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, whose focalizing consciousness mediates everything), Saturday is very much about the pressure that public histories and emergencies exert upon the happiness and self-esteem of the private citizen. Moreover, Perowne's opinions and reflections have at times a strongly ideological tenor, which invites or provokes readers to respond by articulating their own views. For example, the argument he has about the war with his daughter Daisy (185-92)—even if this is somewhat banal and flat as "writing"—pushes the reader towards a directly political response.

Perowne's son Theo declares early in the novel that "the bigger you think, the crappier it looks. . . . So this is going to be my motto: think [End Page 25] small" (34). That naive formulation draws attention to its own instability: if one knows something big and troublesome is there, it is hard not to keep looking at it. Willed self-complacency dissolves into a contradictory discourse that at once calls up and seeks to dispel the fuller and more troubling vision. Experiencing this tension is what makes Henry Perowne a "type." "A character is typical" (wrote Lukács) "when his innermost being is determined by objective forces at work in society";3 and his anxiety about his own comfortable lot is what most makes Perowne an embodiment of the historical moment. He is an enlightened member of the English professional classes at the dawn of the twenty-first century; and Saturday bids to represent the political self-understanding of that globally favored class from which many of its readers, in Britain, Europe and the west generally, will have been drawn.

The novel is thus of special interest to any critic concerned with how contemporary literary fiction mirrors and addresses its audience. It engages centrally, and problematically, with the strategy of "thinking small" (the option, we might say, for limited vision); and the present essay focuses on that topic. The question we especially pursue, despite the methodological crux it confronts us with, is whether we judge Saturday to share, and to accept, the restricted perspectives of its protagonist. Methodologically, this risks invoking a notion of authorial intention, and asking naively whether "McEwan" is to be identified with Perowne. We hope to avoid this by looking, not for covert expressions of putative authorial opinion, but at the novel's participation in the genre of upward-mobility stories, and especially at the key role its plot plays in both dramatizing and offering to appease Perowne's anxiety about his relatively privileged position. Perowne articulates that anxiety directly in just one scene, but the novel's central narrative thread confirms that the source of its political energy lies in unease about class difference, much rather than in anything to do with Iraq.

As evidence that the novel does not simply endorse Perowne's view of things, one can cite the long epigraph taken from Saul Bellow's Herzog. This suggests a perspective on state power, militarism, technological...