Friday, July 3, 2009

Yes, It's Good, But Why Did He Do It?

I'm about two thirds of the way through SATURDAY, by Ian McEwan. I get the impression this is not a book many people actually read, even though it was written by one of the best novelists in the world.

Briefly, the book is the story of a single Saturday in the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon and rationalist, on the Saturday in 2003 when 2 million Londoners turned out to protest the upcoming Iraq War. Perowne is a brilliant man, at the height of his career, and he spends the day circling some kind of vaguely defined ill feeling. Gradually, it becomes clear, to both the reader and Perowne, that Perowne might just disagree with the protesters. Unlike almost any other Briton alive, Perowne might support the war. He once treated an Iraqi general who had been imprisoned and tortured by Saddam's regime, so as he puts it, the protesters have gathered to protect "peace and torture." He's not quite on board, and he finds himself worrying and hoping that the US has some kind of plan for this war.

The book, though, is not really and truly about Iraq, although the war and the events of 9/11 hover over the story--just as they did for everyone in those tense days in early 2003, before the first bombs fell. It's more about one man's immersion and reaction to the modern world, to modernism, and in a way, his deep and abiding love for his pluralistic, open and tolerant society.

McEwan is close to the peak of his game in this book. His control is incredible; every sentence, every word and every thought is completely organic and authentic. But I do find myself wondering what it was about Perowne, and this story in general, that drew McEwan. Let's say for argument sake that a novelist only gets to lavish his or her gifts on so many books in their lifetime. What was it about this story that caused McEwan to invest several years of his ridiculous talent?

It's made me wonder, too ... why do I choose to tell the stories that draw me? Why does anyone? It's not good enough to say, "Because I want to sell a book" or "Because I want to get paid." I think there must be a deeper reason, or else the motivation simply won't be there. The core will be hollow.

Ultimately, the question led me back to theme, and I think I'm beginning to understand in a deeper way than ever what it means to begin with theme. I suppose I can answer my own question about McEwan and SATURDAY. I suspect I know what he wanted to say with this book, and it's not simple. It would take a writer of his caliber to pull it off. So what about your book? My book? Sure, we hope they're good, but why did we do it?

26 comments:

Erica Orloff said...

Wow . . . one of my favorite posts yet.

I didn't become a writer until I had something to say.

My Magickeepers trilogy . . . finding your inner power.

Theme. Starts with a theme.

E

Melanie Avila said...

I feel a little guilty that I've never heard of this book. It sounds great, and I enjoyed your take on it.

I've realized over the course of four or five drafts that like it or not, I have a message with my book. It's not the message I was afraid to talk about (immigration) but instead it's about understanding, and showing how everyone has reasons for what they do, even if you may not agree with them.

LurkerMonkey said...

Remember my ridiculous idea from yesterday? The boys and the balloons? I don't know if this'll make sense, but I thought about it a lot yesterday, and it was McEwan that sort of convinced me to commit to it. The truth is, even if the idea seems silly, it's thematically consistent. That is what SHOULD happen; that is what the story WANTS to happen because the book is about freedom. So I'm in. Now let's just hope I can pull it off.

LurkerMonkey said...

Melanie,

I was thinking of you a little when I wrote this ... it seems your book (from what I know) is rich territory for theme, and very topical considering there's basically a war being fought on the US/Mexican border. Like I said before, no pressure, but you better sell it so I can read it!

Jude Hardin said...

I still have to agree with Stephen King, that starting with theme is a recipe for bad fiction. How can writing be organic when you're always dancing around some sort of "message" or another? It's a matter of opinion, I guess, but I think themes--or what college professors claim to be themes--emerge subconsciously in the best fiction.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

Read SATURDAY. There's no way it's accidental or subconscious. McEwan made deliberate choices in terms of characters and even the day he set the book on ... it's like stumbling on a watch in a desert. Such a thing wasn't formed by random action.

Perhaps you're talking about the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. With a writer of McEwan's caliber, there really doesn't seem to be much question that he starts with theme. I mean, he names his books after his themes (ATONEMENT).

Nothing against King (I've read loads of him), but he pretty much stuck to the same theme over and over. In his work, he's not trying to sound out the human experience in the same way that books like THE CORRECTIONS or anything McEwan writes does. As much as I've enjoyed some of his books, characterization has never been a strong suit of his, and his idea of male/female relationships has always struck me as being frozen in about eighth grade.

Of course there's no sense in arguing literary merit--it's all in the eye of the beholder--but a book like SATURDAY will engage me in a way that no Stephen King novel ever has. Because it poses questions and makes me THINK.

spyscribbler said...

I disagree with Stephen King on that one, for sure. No matter how simple and entertaining a story, it has to say something. Even Stephen King says things, as well as Evanovich, and most successful genre writers. When that is missing, it's like a huge, black hole, and the ending of the story falls flat. You have to make a point.

I have to chalk that up to King not knowing his own process or it happening on a subconscious level for him, because he always says something. He's great at short story, and you can't possibly write a successful short story without saying something.

I read bits and pieces of Saturday and discussed it with my genius poet student for several weeks. I respect it, but I just didn't relate to any of the characters, so I couldn't get into reading it. I did, however, LOVE Atonement. That's a problem I have with a lot of literary fiction: I don't often relate to a male protagonist and a mostly-male cast. I used to be able to read that stuff and enjoy it on its artistic merits and the thoughts it provokes, but not anymore.

LurkerMonkey said...

Spy,

I've spent a lot of time thinking about the male/female balance in books lately, but that's a post for another day. I get it, though. Are you a Jodi Picoult fan? I've never read any, but she seems to be taking the women's lit world by storm nowadays. (I know she's not "literary" fiction, not in the sense that McEwan is, but I'm curious.)

Jude Hardin said...

I don't draw any sort of real line between literary and genre. Good fiction is good fiction, IMO, and it starts with Story, not theme.

Ian McEwan writes great stories (not so different from Stephen King's, really, when you get down to it), and they have to work as stories before you can start excising anything as high-minded as theme.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

I've got to say, I just don't think that's right in this case at all. SATURDAY fits into a particular pattern of books -- these are not "story" books. It's one day in a guy's life, and for the first 2/3 of the book, virtually nothing happens. He plays squash, he sees a plane flying, he gets into a fender bender, he goes to visit his mother, he talks to people. It's not a story in the sense you're talking about. It's an examination, and as an examination, it's a purely thematic examination.

I guess I'm just going to stake ground here and say there is a HUGE difference between what they call literary fiction and what they call genre fiction. There is a difference in purpose. Books like Moby Dick are purely literary -- Moby Dick is an allegory from end to end. It is a story, but it is also much, much more than a story, and Melville's intention was not to simply write a story about a whale. The Life of Pi is a lengthy metaphor, literally structured AROUND its theme.

I just don't think you can make an argument that there is no difference between literary books and genre books, nor do I think you can draw sweeping generalizations about the supremacy of Story. In fact, some of the greatest, most enduring books ever written barely contain recognizable stories, or they contain a multitude of closely themed stories (think Bleak House). There is no question that many extraordinary novelists first ask themselves, "What do I want to say?" before they begin to draft plot points.

Better to control themes, I say, than to leave them to chance. Let's take John D. MacDonald as an example. Upon rereading his books as an adult, I realized that misogyny is one of his themes. Women are frequently helpless, often hypersexualized, and in some cases, treated with condescension and even humiliation by the "good guys." Was this a theme that subconsciously arose in MacDonald's books? If so, perhaps he should have put more thought into it ...

Jude Hardin said...

You must be have read a different John D. MacDonald than I did. Misogyny? I don't think so. Which titles are you talking about?

Tena Russ said...

I like the late Frederick Bush's approach: Create an intersection where two seemingly disparate events, images, or characters meet up. The randomness isn't really random and will eventually reveal theme.

Your great review of SATURDAY made me take it from the shelf for another look. I had a hard time staying with it the first time around.

LurkerMonkey said...

I actually don't have any titles of his in the house ... I gave them all away, and since he was so prolific, I can't exactly separate out specific incidences (but it wouldn't be hard ... I read multitudes of them). But I remember many, many instances in which McGee and Meyer swapped women, McGee slapped them to keep them in line, or (mostly) he treated them like exotic pets needing pampering on The Busted Flush. He was genuinely affectionate toward his women, in the sense that one is genuinely affectionate toward their cat. Again and again, books are structured around helpless women who have been victimized and who need his unique brand of salvaging. I get it that the genre is essentially built around helpless women, and MacDonald wasn't nearly as bad as Spillane (who I find unreadable), but again, there's little question that our concept of women's rights and power has moved WAY beyond MacDonald's books.

spyscribbler said...

My stake in the sand says that story and theme are inseparable. :-) A story makes a point, and that point is theme. (There is a story to Saturday...)

I am not a huge women's fiction fan. I don't relate to women, either, LOL. :-) (Okay, just kidding.) I like fiction with a capital F. We seem to be in a period of realism, and that just doesn't do it for me. I LOVE the 19th-century novel. To me, that is the ideal. John Irving would be the contemporary epitome of all I love about story. (He's pretty commercial, so I'm not sure he even qualifies.) Neil Gaiman comes in second, LOL. Atonement is close enough, but Saturday is not, LOL. :-)

LurkerMonkey said...

Tena,

I like that. Food for thought ...

Yeah, I had to give Saturday a little extra patience, but once I made it to the fender bender, I was in.

LurkerMonkey said...

Spy,

Our reading tastes sound pretty similar ... and I'm not a huge fan of realism either. I do read a fair bit of Victorian literature and count Dickens among my favorites. I reread Great Expectations every few years just to make sure I still love it like I remember. And I always do. But after Saturday, I'm taking Erica's adivce: I've got Atwood's The Blind Assassin sitting next to me as I type. She talks about it so highly I've already started it a little here and there ...

Erica Orloff said...

I have to agree with Jon on a couple of points. I think you can end up with a meh if you wake up one day, come up with a cool character and plot, and just write a Story. It may hold my attention, but at the end of the day, did it SAY something. I will agree that, in the hands of some writers (in fact, I think aspiring YA writers get rejected for this reason a lot), starting with theme ends up reading like a sermon somehow. But without theme . . . I don't know. It really doesn't have to be pendantic. More like, "What do I have to say?" "What is my character's growth and journey? What will he or she learn about life, love, redemption, themselves?"

As for literary versus commercial fiction--TOTALLY different beasts. In fact, you can read about Michael Chabon's various squabbles on the issue--and I consider him one of our greatest living literary novelists. He also writes genre fiction. He comes down a bit on the side of they are more the same than we think. But I agree with Jon . . . there are some extraordinary books that have the very kernal of their conception . .. a literary theme or thought.

Erica Orloff said...

Spy:
Hmm . . . should have read all the comments. I like Spy's stake.

:-)
E

Melanie Avila said...

This has been an interesting discussion. I love realism in fiction and like both male and female POVs. I LOVED Atonement and I'm currently reading Anna Karenina so I do enjoy other time periods.

And Jon, I sent out my first queries last night, so we'll see...

Jude Hardin said...

I suppose you could make an argument that parts of those books are sexist by today's standards, but sexism and misogyny are two different things. Is McEwan a misogynist because he uses language like sweet wet cu*t? It's all in the context.

And even today you can find a certain kind of woman roaming the beaches of Lauderdale, with a wealthy father and tattoos over her butt cheeks and silicone implants and a store-bought tan. And I'm sure over at the marina there's a boat bum with plenty of Carta Blanca and Boodles on board who would be happy to have her as a guest for a few days. Some things never change. ;)

Erica Orloff said...

Jude:
I would venture to say that sexism and misogyny at at root the same--just on different points on the scale. Objectifying a woman as that set of words? Hateful. Sorry . . .

E

Jude said...

Well, I don't think there's anything hateful about the Travis Magee novels, any more than I think there's anything hateful about Huckleberry Finn. There are those who would ban and even burn both because of one agenda or another, but to me they're both just solid (dare I say great) storytelling, albeit from different eras with different attitudes.

Jude said...

Objectifying a woman as that set of words? Hateful. Sorry...

What set of words were you referring to? Ian McEwan's from Atonement? Like I said, you have to consider the context.

spyscribbler said...

I just want to say that yours and Erica's blog have had a fascinating comments section today. :-)

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

Not intentionally sidestepping the issue, but you did make me laugh ... indeed, you can find those women all over Ft. Lauderdale beach. I'll probably run into a few today!

Jude Hardin said...

I was hoping that would make you smile. Have fun at the beach!