Saturday: I Got the Rich White Boy Blues (p. 25-37)

Twenty-five pages in and the sun hasn’t risen yet. Just FYI.


It is here we are introduced to Henry’s son, up-and-coming blues musician Theo Perowne, described thusly:

…eighteen years old, his formal education already long behind him, reclining on a tilted-back kitchen chair, his legs in tight black jeans, his feet in boots of soft black leather (paid for with his own money) crossed on the edge of the table. […] A studded leather jacket lies in a heap on the floor. (p. 25)

I had to read through that one twice, ‘cos I thought at first he played, like, punk. But that’s neither here nor there. Let’s zero in on that part where he talks about “formal education”:

Leaving school did the trick after all—boldly stepping where his parents didn’t dare, out of formal education, taking charge of his life. (p. 36)

Because when you’re the son of a successful brain surgeon and an equally successful journalist (or lawyer, or something; what exactly Rosalind does is something I never quite nailed down), that’s a luxury you can get away with. I’m over here honestly wondering if Theo still lives with his parents by choice.

Incidentally, Theo, as we will learn later, “is against the war in Iraq. His attitude is as strong and pure as his bones and skin.” (p. 153) Keep this in mind as his worldview is described.

As Henry understands it, Theo’s world-view accommodates a hunch that somehow everything is connected, interestingly connected, and that certain authorities, notably the U.S. government, with privileged access to extra-terrestrial intelligence, is excluding the rest of the world from such wondrous knowledge as contemporary science, dull and strait-laced, cannot begin to comprehend. […] His curiosity, mild as it is, has been hijacked by peddlers of fakery. (p. 30)

Oh, those irrational lefties! (Again with the infodumping. Couldn’t McEwan have had Theo name-drop Area 51 or Roswell a few times?) I think this passage is deliberately meant to set up Theo, whatever his other strengths, as a strawman lefty, an indication that whatever he has to say about politics is not to be trusted. After all, he believes in aliens!

Incidentally, this little tidbit has no import on the story whatsoever.

Speaking of politics, let’s have another digression on 9/11!

The September attacks were Theo’s introduction into international affairs, the moment he accepted that events beyond friends, home and the music scene had bearing on his existence. At sixteen, which was what he was at the time, this seemed rather late. (p. 31-32)

No kidding.

A personal anecdote, for what it’s worth. I was first introduced to the world of politics after the 2000 election and recount. When 9/11 happened I was ten.* So you’ll understand why, even though Theo and I are theoretically of the same or adjacent generations, this kid’s relationship with politics rings false.

*Shut up.

Also, drink.

His initiation, in front of the TV, before the dissolving towers, was intense but he adapted quickly. These days he scans the papers for fresh developments the way he might a listings magazine. As long as there’s nothing new, his mind is free. International terror, security cordons, preparations for war—these represent the steady state, the weather. Emerging into adult consciousness, this is the world he finds. (p. 31-32)

Wasn’t how I felt after 9/11, but then I was ten. What did I know? Two years into the Iraq war, when the violent stalemate set in and it was clear the troops wouldn’t be home in time for cornflakes, I started to feel much the same way Perowne does here:

Despite the troops mustering in the Gulf, or the tanks out at Heathrow on Thursday, the storming of the Finsbury Park mosque, the reports of terror cells around the country, and Bin Laden’s promise on tape of “martyrdom attacks” on London,** Perowne held for a while to the idea that it was all an aberration, that the world would surely calm down and soon be otherwise, that solutions were possible, that reason, being a powerful tool, was irresistible, the only way out; or that like any other crisis, this one would fade soon, and make way for the next, going the way of the Falklands and Bosnia, Biafra and Chernobyl. But lately, this is looking optimistic. […] The nineties are looking like an innocent decade, and who would have thought that at the time? Now we breathe a different air. He bought Fred Halliday’s book*** and read in the opening pages what looked like a conclusion and a curse: the New York attacks**** precipitated a global crisis that would, if we were lucky, take a hundred years to resolve. If we were lucky. (p. 32-33)

**Ladies and gentlemen, the War on Terror reframed as a War on Muslims. When you recall McEwan’s defense of some jaw-droppingly Islamophobic comments from Martin Amis (of the “let’s-repress-Muslims-until-they-clean-house” variety), this is not so surprising.
***Not sure which book. My Wikipedia-fu is failing me here.

So basically, Henry Perowne, world-class brain surgeon, has all the political thoughtfulness of an immature fourteen-year-old. This is emphasized even more once Theo mentions the “jihadists”:

On Theo’s lips—he takes the trouble to do something fancy with the “j”—the Arabic word sounds as innocuous as some stringed Moroccan instrument the band might take up and electrify. In the ideal Islamic state, under strict Shari’a law, there’ll be room for surgeons. Blues guitarists will be found other employment. But perhaps no one is demanding such a state. Nothing is demanded. Only hatred is registered, the purity of nihilism. (p. 34)

Don’t people actually do fancy things with the “h” in that word? There’s more to this passage, of course, but let’s take a moment to zero in on the mention of “nihilism,” made especially prescient roughly eight years hence, when our humble author is in Israel accepting the Jerusalem Prize:

I’d like to say something about nihilism. Hamas whose founding charter incorporates the toxic fakery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has embraced the nihilism of the suicide bomber, of rockets fired blindly into towns, and embraced the nihilism of an extinctionist policy towards Israel. But (to take just one example) it was also nihilism that fired a rocket at the undefended Gazan home of the Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, in 2008, killing his three daughters and his niece. It is nihilism to make a long term prison camp of the Gaza Strip. Nihilism has unleashed the tsunami of concrete across the occupied territories.

A golden-mean-esque “I’m fingering both sides look how reasonable I am” defense can’t excuse the fact that he’s dead wrong:

To describe political violence as nihilism is to deny it an interiority, to reject the possibility that it might form part of a distinctively human project, a form of action that is intelligible, that is rooted in positive goals, aspirations, plans, feelings, that is executed with creative force and ingenuity, that its failures and successes can be exhilarating, satisfying, crushing, disappointing.

It wasn’t nihilism when he accepted the Jerusalem Prize, and it wasn’t nihilism on 15 February 2003.***** The difference being that before, our humble author knew this:

But that’s not quite right. Radical Islamists aren’t really nihilists—they want a perfect society on earth, which is Islam. They belong in a doomed tradition about which Perowne takes the conventional view—the pursuit of utopia ends up licensing every form of excess, all ruthless means of realisation. If everyone is sure to end up happy for ever, what crime can it be to slaughter a million or two now? (p. 34)

Actually, you know what? Take a drink whenever some bourgeois liberal Islamophobia bleeds through. I’m having still more flashbacks to McEwan’s obnoxious defense of Martin Amis.

*****Tangent: the explicit reference to “no demands,” and “only hatred is registered,” makes one wonder what Perowne would think of pre-Eviction OWS.

One more thing before this section’s over, one more reminder that the Perowne household is insanely privileged and privilege-denying:

On a recent Sunday evening Theo came up with an aphorism: the bigger you think, the crappier it looks. Asked to explain he said, “When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in—you know, a girl I’ve just met, or this song we’re going to do with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto—think small.” (p. 35)

Easy for you to say. You’re an incredibly talented blues musician. Your father’s a famous doctor. Your family has money. You live in a really nice part of central London. You’re in good health. You’ve never had a dead-end job. You’ve never been on welfare. You’ve never had to worry about health insurance. You’ve never had to worry about student loan debt. You’ve never had to worry about any sort of financial issues. A fat lot of good your precious motto does for those of us with dysfunctional personal and family lives.

Oh, and, by the way, “headbanging stuff” is metal, not blues. Get your genres right.


About theoditsek

I like going places.
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