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Terror and Pleasure
by rejoyce on October 2, 2007Ian McEwan's novel Saturday is purposely set on the day of London's massive demonstration against the impending attack on Iraq. The protagonist Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, inadventently scrapes the car of a hood named Baxter after illegally crossing a police barricade. Baxter and his thugs retaliate against an imagined humiliation by breaking into Perowne's house and threatening his wife with a knife. Perowne recalls Baxter as a patient diagnosed with Huntington's. He forces his daughter to strip, then to recite one of her poems, but her grandfather proffers instead Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," where "ignorant armies clash by night."
The novel ends equivocally. The family's opposition to Baxter and his gang is paradigmatic, but how exactly to read it? The expelling of foreign invaders? The necessity of force when confronted by force? The depredations of monsters? As I was reading the novel, a series of coordinated bomb attacks in the Tube and on a double-decker bus in London occurred. McEwan's novel seemed eerily prescient. By compressing his narrative into a single day and filtered through a single consciousness, the author describes well longstanding familial bonds, the eroticism of a middle-aged couple, parent-child tensions. The sensuous appreciation of the world is abundantly rich. McEwan also uses medicine and science to reconfigure the novel's early assumptions; science questions the notion of free will, because the erosion of diseases like Huntington's consigns patients like Baxter to a kind of deterministic fate. And knives are a symbol double in meaning: Perowne's scalpel meant to heal, Baxter's to maim and kill: those twin impulses alive and well in our world.
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