Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Structure of Fear (With Apologies to Raymond Williams)

The key to Ian McEwan's mastery of style is his ability to capture what Raymond Williams called a "structure of feeling." Or, sometimes, just raw feeling. An excerpt from his new book, Saturday, a meditation on life for a certain kind of upper middle class English male after september 11:

"Like most passengers, outwardly subdued by the monotony of air travel, he often lets his thoughts range across the possibilities while sitting, strapped down and docile, in front of a packaged meal. Outside, beyond a wall of thin steel and cheerful creaking plastic, it's minus sixty degrees and forty thousand feet to the ground. Flung across the Atlantic at five hundred feet a second, you submit to the folly because everyone else does. Your fellow passengers are reassured because you and the others around you appear calm. Looked at a certain way -- deaths per passenger mile -- the statistics are consoling. And how else attend a conference in Southern California? Air travel is a stock market, a trick of mirrored perceptions, a fragile alliance of pooled belief; so long as nerves hold steady and no bombs or wreckers are on board, everybody prospers. When there's failure, there will be no half measures. Seen another way -- deaths per journey -- the figures aren't so good. The market could plunge.

Plastic fork in hand, he often wonders how it might go -- the screaming in the cabin partly muffled by that deadening acoustic, the fumbling in bags for phones and last words, the airline staff in their terror clinging to remembered fragments of procedure, the leveling smell of shit. But the scene construed from the outside, from afar like this, is also familiar. It's already almost eighteen months since half the planet watched, and watched again, the unseen captives driven through the sky to the slaughter, at which time there gathered round the innocent silhouette of any jet plane a novel association. Everyone agrees, airliners look different in the sky these days, predatory or doomed." (Ian McEwan, Saturday, 2005, p. 14-15).


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