Raymond Tallis’s article on Ian McEwan’s Saturday in issue 27 of The Reader magazine addresses the issue of implausibility in fiction. It is interesting for a start that Tallis picks the word ‘implausibility’, rather than something more definite such as ‘accuracy’ or ‘truthfulness’, because whether or not you find McEwan’s novel plausible depends very much on what you know or think you know. Whether the novel is truthful in a broader sense goes way beyond being able to verify the extent to which it is factually correct. Here are some thoughts and some links around the issues raised by Tallis’s Reader 27 article.
McEwan’s novel was published in 2005 and features Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon on his day off. This Saturday also happens to be February 15, 2003, the day of the anti-Iraq War demonstration in London and elsewhere. Tallis’ 35-year medical career included, he tells us, treating patients with Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and stroke. So when it comes to scrutinising McEwan’s background research, he’s no slouch. Tallis lays out his stall with a nod to Roland Barthes’ mockery of the ‘”secretarial realism” of writers such as Balzac’ and declares that ‘getting things right must be better than getting them wrong’. But must it?
Tallis’s critique of Saturday is not, as you might think, an attack on weaknesses in McEwan’s research. It seems like it might be, but it isn’t. With the exception of Perowne operating on his assailant’s brain under the influence of alcohol, Tallis is disturbed by the inanity of the plotting, first and foremost. As it turns out, Tallis’s 35 years in medicine are not really the issue here, but his need to believe in specific moments rather than what Edgar Allan Poe called the ‘totality of effect’.
I happen to agree with Tallis about many of the weaknesses in McEwan’s plotting, that the novel has been overrated by the critics (though not all) and also with his view that it is a ‘polished failure’. It is implausible that a Victorian poem read by a naked girl could calm a violent criminal. Implausible too is the idea of engaging with a hardened and threatening criminal on the subject of his brain defect and living to tell the tale. Less so however that an engrossed and single-minded professional should continue to think from inside his training when confronted by an attacker. Isn’t that where the stereotype of the absent-minded professor comes from?
Where I disagree with him is in the view that implausibility matters, even in a realistic novel. Saturday is not a manual of neurosurgery, a psychological treatise, or a report on street violence and the criminal mind. It is a novel, made to create sensation, to generate thought and feeling and yes, disturbance. Though she did her writing a long time before Balzac and Barthes, Jane Austen knew this. As Catherine Morland finds out in Northanger Abbey, reading novels as if they were a guide to reality is bound to end in disappointment; and that also applies to Northanger Abbey itself. What I find surprising is that after 200 years we are still arguing about it.
Read Raymond Tallis’s article in Reader 27, which you can buy here.
Of related interest: