Saturday: How the Other Half Lives (p. 1-11)

The good doctor Henry Perowne, our hero, wakes up unseasonably early, walks over to the window, and takes in his surroundings.

That particular façade is a reconstruction, a pastiche—wartime Fitzrovia took some hits from the Luftwaffe—and right behind is the Post Office Tower, municipal and seedy by day, but at night, half-concealed and decently illuminated, a valiant memorial to more optimistic days. (p. 2)

Those of you familiar with the geography of central London will notice that the good doctor lives on the north end of Fitzroy Square. This is a very swank area, home to two embassies and a historical preservation association.* Wikipedia tells us the square previously housed many famous authors and painters and chemists, like George Bernard Shaw, James McNeil Whistler, Virginia Woolf, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, and one Ian McEwan. Fancy that.

*And, no, I don’t believe Hitch when he says it’s supposed to be a “rough district.” You can find junkies anywhere in any city, and London is no different. Besides, when I think “rough district” I don’t think Fitzrovia. I think of West Baltimore. And so should Hitch, come to think of it, considering where he spent the last thirty years of his life.

I actually am not going to hate on McEwan for putting Perowne in his house specifically. Write what you know, &c., but dropping Perowne in Fitzrovia still establishes the good doctor as being, you know, rich and successful. A one-percenter, in the parlance of our times. This may explain his politics.

Incidentally, the BT Tower was built in 1964. I don’t know what London was like in the 60s and 70s beyond, like, the youth subcultures, so I don’t know offhand what “optimistic days” he’s referring to. Oh wait…

But now, what days are these? (p. 3)

Ellis Sharp had mentioned that McEwan buys into this whole 9/11 Changed Everything narrative, so the more optimistic days more than likely refers to “before 9/11.” Which does beg the question: has Perowne forgotten all about those times London got blown up by the Provisional IRA? Did he stand outside his window thinking about this stuff after the Docklands bombing? Or the Baltic Exchange bombing?

Perowne muses some more.

Henry thinks the city is a success, a brilliant invention, a biological masterpiece—millions teeming around the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries, as though around a coral reef, sleeping, working, entertaining themselves, harmonious for the most part, nearly everyone wanting it to work. (p. 3)

I know we’re supposed to think of the city almost as a biological organism, but coming from someone in his position, the passage develops an everything-in-its-right-place vibe that’s kind of repulsive. Perowne’s peace of mind is directly related to the quiet serenity of his surroundings. I wonder if the good doctor would think this way if he lived in, say, a working-class neighborhood. Like the Docklands before they tore it up and replaced it with cathedrals to the rich and powerful. Or maybe one of those neighborhoods that got hit by the riots last August.

While he’s standing at the window, Perowne then starts musing over his long and tiring Friday.

Forty-eight years old, profoundly asleep on a Friday night—this is modern professional life. He works hard, everyone around him works hard […] (p. 5)

How quaint. In the following pages we see who he treated yesterday, all described in exacting, clinical detail, but the only one we care about is Andrea Chapman.

She’s a fourteen-year-old girl from a village in rural Nigeria, adoptive “niece” of a C of E vicar. And here’s how she’s described.

She took to the music, the clothes, the talk, the values—the street. She had attitude, the vicar confided while his wife was trying to settle Andrea on the ward. His niece took drugs, got drunk, shoplifted, bunked off school, hated authority, and “swore like a merchant salesman.” Could it be the tumour was pressing down on some part of her brain? (p. 8)

Yes. Yes. Please. Do that. Attribute her anarchic, nonconformist behavior to some biological abnormality that has to be rooted out, and quick. How delightfully eugenical of you. Get rid of the tumour, and she’ll be a happy, productive sheep member of society again.

But wait, there’s more!

Even when Andrea wasn’t aroused, she affected to talk like a rapper on MTV, swaying her upper body as she sat up in bed, making circular movements with her palms downwards, soothing the air in front of her, in preparation for one of her own storms. […] She smiled joyously, even when she was shouting in apparent fury, as though she was tickled by just how much she could get away with. It took Jay Strauss, an American with the warmth and directness that no one in this English hospital could muster, to being her into line. (p. 9)

Hitch says this is supposed to be a novel “unapologetically anchored […]in the material world and its several discontents,” and here I am, eight, nine pages in, and I encounter this caricature.

What we’re seeing here, basically, is the calm, direct, strong rich white (note the German surname) male Westerner calming down the hysterical irrational female Nigerian from riot-prone Brixton. All the disturbing racial and gender implications tucked away in that one sentence almost made me throw the book against a wall.

After that, Perowne does paperwork. No, seriously. All the garbage he has to deal with at his desk is described in excruciating detail, which I guess is here for the sake of immersion. And also this:

There’s to be a new look—there’s always a new look—at the hospital’s Emergency Plan. Simple train crashes are no longer all that are envisaged, and words like “catastrophe” and “mass fatalities,” “chemical and biological warfare” and “major attack” have recently become bland through repetition. (p. 10)

Have we mentioned that this is a very post-9/11 novel?

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About theoditsek

I like going places.
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