Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

"Plastic Fork in Hand": Reading as a Tool of Ethical Repair in Ian McEwan's Saturday

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

"Plastic Fork in Hand": Reading as a Tool of Ethical Repair in Ian McEwan's Saturday

Article excerpt

The opening scene of Ian McEwan's Saturday is, in many ways, a lesson in reading. Waking in the early hours before dawn, the novel's protagonist, Henry Perowne - an urbane positivist and highly successful neurosurgeon by day - is drawn out of bed toward his bedroom window. Led by a vague compulsion he claims to have never before known, he awakens to a nighttime world where he is susceptible to mysterious forces. As he rises, he finds himself "already in motion," "almost summoned" by an unaccountable call. Moving as if "in a dream," he feels compelled to look out through the window's large frame - a structure that literally and metaphorically places margins around as much of the world as is visible to him in the pre-dawn light - where he pauses. From this vantage point, we are drawn into Henry's thoughts as McEwan blends traditional third-person narration with long passages of free indirect discourse that focalize the scene before us through Henry's consciousness. Thus while we meet him first as a man whose consciousness is in tow - a man mesmerized before an unfolding scene - in the dim uncertainties of his private musings, it also becomes clear that he is a man of limited scope - a man capable of only glimpsing understandings beyond the frameworks of his everyday world. As Henry struggles to locate an originating context for the penciled outlines before him, he mirrors our own processes of distilling meaning from texts both strange and familiar as we, too, are pulled into McEwan's pages.

It is significant, therefore, that our invitation into Henry's governing consciousness comes through his reflections before the glass. Here, rather than begin his narration by describing the events unfolding outside his window, he takes several pages to introduce himself. As he does so, McEwan suggests that Henry's window is initially a mirror through which he filters his perceptions. Face-to-face with his own reflection, he describes himself primarily through the years of successful surgeries that have assured him of the right-mindedness of reaching conclusions by locating familiar points of reference. His personal investment in this accounting, however, soon bespeaks the fissures in its narrative surface as well. For as Henry foregrounds his successes, he simultaneously reveals his need to come to terms with his failure to read the accumulating works of literature his poet-daughter, Daisy, sends him. As if he senses that his interior narrative will remain a coherent tale of professional accomplishment only if these unread titles do not impugn his powers of insight and diagnosis, he tells us that the one by Conrad, "however morally fraught, doesn't interest him much" (5). Claiming that the novels piling up on his nightstand leverage ambiguity and open-endedness in a manner that is "antithetical to his training," he vindicates himself for "leaving her recommendations halffinished." Rather than examine his limited capacity to comprehend these texts, he associates the ability to project into the lives of literary characters with passivity and allows himself to reach the tidy conclusion that it would be a waste of his time to spend his weekends lying down as "a spectator of other lives." It does not interest him "to have the world reinvented; he wants it explained" (64-65).

From the first, then, intricate loops of self-rationalization lace the surface of Henry's narrative, and as we note these purposive discursive manipulations, we become better positioned to recognize how McEwan's subtle use of the third-person foregrounds the thematic implications of Henry's mode of personal disclosure. To counter his argument about wasting time, we are challenged, it seems, to gain purchase on a crucial distinction McEwan implies between merely being a spectator of and attentively reading the lives of others. For as we look through the image of himself Henry sees in the glass (away from the interior spaces that make him most comfortable), his transparent rhetorical maneuvering makes us mindful of how carefully he guards the outlines of his life. …

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