One wild day in a doctor's life

The author of 'Atonement' explores a post-9/11 world

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Early one morning in 2003: A London neurosurgeon stands at his bedroom window and watches a plane on fire fly past. Is it mechanical failure or an act of terrorism? The question is quickly answered, but the sight sets the doctor off on a day-long rumination about the (still-pending) war in Iraq and the character of Western life since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It's been 3-1/2 years since those attacks, and this spring marks the first wave of books from so-called "literary" novelists attempting to address the subject. Of the eight or so authors whose works are currently scheduled, Ian McEwan is by far the most eminent.

The award-winning British novelist is a finalist for the first Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement, along with writers such as Doris Lessing, John Updike, and Philip Roth. And his previous work, "Atonement," which won the National Book Critics Circle award, had the most lovely and heartbreaking ending of any book I read in 2002.

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"Saturday," as its name suggests, takes place during one extremely long day in the life of Henry Perowne. Like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway before him, Henry is going shopping for a dinner party - only he's buying fish rather than flowers. His party is also the scene of a reunion, a reconciliation between his daughter, a just-published poet, and her grandfather, a literary lion and chronic alcoholic.

Henry is, to the bottom of his medulla oblongata, a decent man. He loves his wife, an attorney for a newspaper; he is a doting father to his two children. He spends his working hours trying to save lives. For readers who aren't devotees of TV's "E.R.," Henry's work is described in great clinical detail - called medical porn in a prepublication book periodical, Kirkus Reviews. Henry still regularly visits his mother, even though she doesn't recognize him anymore. He, bless him, has views on the war on Iraq that don't fit neatly on a bumper sticker.

And he's been given every material thing a modern being could covet - including a Mercedes 500. He enjoys good health. His home is opulent; his wife lovely; his children ridiculously gifted. I have colleagues who would burst into hysterical choking laughter at the ease with which 23-year-old Daisy lands her first published poetry collection, from a prestigious London publisher, no less. Ditto for Theo, an easygoing bluesman who has jammed with everybody from Ry Cooder to Eric Clapton by the age of 18.

Henry has no use for religion - what he calls the supernatural. Not only doesn't Henry believe in God, he doesn't believe that anybody else (read: upper-middle-class, white, English speakers) does either. Or if they do, the neurosurgeon is convinced that their faith is a pernicious form of mental illness.

"In Henry's view, such reasoning belongs on a spectrum at whose far end, rearing like an abandoned temple, lies psychosis." (Full disclosure: If he's right, this review represents the ramblings of a madwoman.)

Henry also, despite his daughter's best efforts, has little patience for the realm of ideas: Books and poetry leave him cold and baffled. "This notion of Daisy's, that people can't 'live' without stories, is simply not true. He is living proof."

This insular worldview, coupled with a tendency to didactic generalizations - modern people define themselves by their work?! Who knew? - can cause a reader's attention to wander when Henry is left alone with his thoughts for too long.

(This reader whiled away such passages by counting up the surely unintentional similarities to the WB's TV series "Everwood": Slightly pompous, middle-aged neurosurgeon, whose teenage son is a musical prodigy. Check. Plot arc involving Huntington's disease. Check. One unplanned pregnancy. Check. Hey, both the daughters' names start with D!)

But don't wander far, because while Henry spends the first half of the book philosophizing about terrorism, he spends the second half grappling with it in a much more personal manner. On his way to his weekly squash game, Henry and a thug named Baxter get into a fender-bender, and Henry eludes a beating by playing on the young man's fears about a medically incurable illness. Later that night, Baxter comes back to defend his street cred, and Henry is left to wish that he had emptied his bank account into the man's pockets when he had the chance.

To McEwan's great credit, he doesn't go for the easy payoff of nihilism. "Dover Beach," by Matthew Arnold, a Victorian agnostic poet, plays a pivotal role in the novel's climax. For those who don't have their Norton anthologies handy, it concludes:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle
and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

When they're feeling abandoned in the dark, people could do worse than cling to one another. McEwan's novel ends with the hard-won virtues of forgiveness, familial love, and decency. It's not the grace found at the end of "Atonement," but there's something moving in the fact that Henry always can be counted on to do the decent thing.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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