A Day in the Life of a Surgeon, review of Saturday by Ian McEwan

a book review by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com, www.samizdat.com


McEwan smoothly leads the reader into the surgeon's world -- all of his concerns and emotions, from professional to family. You see what he sees. You feel what he feels, including the wrenching pain and disorientatoin of confrontation with random brutality -- incidents that deny and affirm the meaning of his life.

McEwan has the ability to create an entire world in a single paragraph, and without the need for extraordinary events (like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway walking down the street, only far more engrossing and compelling).

His style reminds me of the old piece of wisdom that every part of the world, no matter how small, implies the existence of the entire universe. For God to create a single rose, He must create everything -- all in its proper place and with all of its past and all of its likely future. When McEwan creates a character or sets a scence, he does so with such rich texture and such palpable reality that it feels like he has created a universe. Reading such a book is pure pleasure.

At one point, McEwan uses the phrase "poised on a hinge of perception" to describe the surgeon's perspective. Time and again the moments described and shown are carefully chosen. Yes this is a "day in the life", but it's a well-chosen day, and the pieces of it shown feel important, even climactic, even though they deal with "ordinary" events (events and emotions that are very easy to identify wth).

The surgeon's world is very different from another "day in the life" of world -- that of Ivan Denisovich (in the book by Solzhenitsyn). Denisovich too introduced the reader to an entire world, in very few pages, but it dealt with circumstances that were hard to imagine, stretching our notion of what can consititute a human life, of the range of possibilities, of the depths to which one can sink and still retain some semblance of humanity, of value systems that should apply everywhere. By contrast, Saturday engages us with the familiarity of the scenes and sensations. Yet it too stretches our perceptions of humanity and values and the meaning of life.

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