The Frontal Cortex

I discuss the neuroscientific sensitivities of Saturday, Ian McEwan’s 2004 novel, in my forthcoming book, so I was happy to read this paragraph in Jonathan Lethem’s review of McEwan’s latest novel. Lethem is wondering why McEwan, despite his dabbles in modernist structure (Saturday is modeled on Mrs. Dalloway), doesn’t feel like a late modernist:

The answer may lie in the fact that modernism in fiction was partly spurred by the appearance of two great rivals to the novel’s authority, psychoanalysis and cinema — one a rival at plumbing depths, the other at delineating surfaces. McEwan, who comes along later, shrugs at such absolutist contests, and has for that matter already engulfed (most brilliantly in “Enduring Love”) the latest challenger to the novel’s throne: neurology. In fact, McEwan may in retrospect be seen as the quintessential example of the recent integration of scientific interest into fiction, precisely because in McEwan (as opposed to, say, Richard Powers) such matters cease to be in any way remarkable.

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I hold up McEwan as a model of modern consilience, a writer able to seamlessly bridge the chasm separating scientific fact from modern fiction. My weekend plans consist of reading On Chesil Beach.


  1. #1 Ed Yong
    June 8, 2007

    I totally agree with this. Saturday is a superb book and the neurosurgical aspects of it integrate beautifully. They never feel forced – they show science as something both everyday and exciting, which is of course what it should be.

    Contrast that with, say, your average Michael Crichton novel, where the author seems to be periodically poking his head around and saying (in the style of a shampoo ad) “Here comes the science bit”

  2. #2 Mary Soderstrom
    June 12, 2007

    Yes, but isn’t Saturday also a book about the current limitations of neurology and our understanding of the brain? There is little that MeEwan’s neurosurgeon can do to solve the problem of Baxter, and nothing he can do to help his mother who is well into dementia. True, he did save (or help to save) his wife from a rare brain condition years previously, but he (and the reader) is well aware of just what he can do and understand about the what makes us humna, the brain.

    This is not to say that the book is pessimistic. On the contrary, it can be seen as a hymn to the spirit of people like Perowne who have reached an accommodation between their desire to do something, and the recognition that there is much we can not do, no matter how skilled we may be.

    Mary Soderstrom

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