Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Postcolonial Melancholia in Ian McEwan's Saturday

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Postcolonial Melancholia in Ian McEwan's Saturday

Article excerpt

Ian McEwan's Saturday (2005) appeared within a week that saw the publication of a Guardian article by Leo Benedictus in which London was celebrated as "the most cosmopolitan place on earth," the home of "Every race, colour, nation and religion on earth." Benedictus illustrated this claim with an oversized, two-page map of London, charting fifty-two ethnic enclaves--from Jamaican and Somali to West African and Turkish--across the metropole. The accompanying article asserted that "never have so many different kinds of people tried living together in the same place before," and it detailed the varying attitudes, beliefs, social practices, and even the culinary practices that permeate the uneasy social whole (2-5). Yet Saturday is mostly devoid of London's vibrant multicultural scene, the ongoing legacy of an empire whose demise has been much lamented.

To be sure, in both the national and international press, Saturday received many laudatory reviews for its artistry--and in particular for its intimate and meticulous rendering of the life of a contemporary Londoner, the preoccupations and concerns of a single day in his life, as well as the professional, insider's view of brain surgery. Writing for the Times Literary Supplement, Theo Tait enthused that the novel "is executed with [McEwan's] customary skill, intelligence, and sensuousness: the structure is minutely planned; the individual scenes have a cinematic, brightly lit clarity; the prose is clean, sharp, and watchful" (21). (1) McEwan's rendering of the uneven rhythms of a competitive squash game garnered special critical acclaim. Those who liked the novel appreciated how McEwan had successfully "captured an essential quality of the bourgeois, consumerist West" (Siegel 34).

Yet those lauding the novel also alluded to its disturbing undercurrent, a persistent impression that the life of contemporary Londoners goes forward as if "lived in the permanent shadow of atrocity" (Tait 22). Most readers trace this undercurrent to the novel's opening scene in which the protagonist stands at his bedroom window in the middle of the night and watches an aircraft on tire streak across the darkened metropolitan sky. But the event is a red herring--nothing more than a Russian cargo plane whose accidental ignition resulted from no act of international terrorism or other malfeasance. In this way, the narrative nods significantly in the direction of 9/11--and perhaps uncannily anticipates 7/7.

I will suggest that what disturbs this novel is less an anxiety about personal safety iv a world of destabilized politics and more a psychological condition that sociologist Paul Gilroy, in a recent, provocative monograph, has called "postcolonial melancholia." The author of several significant books on race in the UK, including There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, The Black Atlantic, and Against Race, Gilroy now charges that the life of England "has been dominated by an inability even to face, never mind actually mourn, the profound change in circumstances and moods that actually followed the end of empire and consequent loss of imperial prestige." Thus postcolonial melancholy describes the "shock and anxiety that followed from the loss of any sense that the national collective was bound by a coherent and distinctive culture" (90). Gilroy further asserts that, rather than working through its complex feelings, the UK is in the process of diminishing, denying, and actively forgetting the unsettling history that produced the melancholia in the first place. (2)

In creating a protagonist who is simultaneously Everyman, "l'homme moyen sensual" (Siegel 34 and Banville 2), and an ardent anti-intellectual, McEwan offers his readers a hero whose psychology fits Gilroy's description. Admittedly, as an author who has long engaged in questions of Englishness and English identity, McEwan bas frequently offered his readers flawed protagonists-characters such as Stephen Lewis in The Child in Time or Joe Rose in Enduring Love, men who mark the particular intersection of individuated yet representative psychologies. …

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