A Nonsynchronous Contemporaneity
On the eve of the 2003 Iraq War, Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon protago-
nist of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, ponders the pervading sense of anxiety
and vulnerability in the world, a feeling aggravated by incessant exposure to
images of violent global flashpoints: “He takes a step towards the cd player,
then changes his mind for he’s feeling the pull, like gravity, of the approach-
ing tv news. It’s the condition of the times, this compulsion to hear how it stands
with the world, and be joined to a generality, to a community of anxiety. . . .
The television networks stand ready to deliver, and their audiences wait. Big-
ger, grosser, next time. Please don’t let it happen. But let me see it all the
same, as it’s happening and from every angle, and let me be among the first
to know.”1 Saturday is a symptomatic case study for this book on the “con-
dition of the times,” a zeitgeist marked by our “compulsion” to be world-
oriented in the aftermath of the cold war and the geopolitics of violence that
we have been witness to. This spectatorial, world- making sensibility, medi-
ated by a flow of images that iconicize terror- inducing devastation as a sign
of our times, produces the distinctive literary formation that is the primary
focus of this study: the contemporary world novel. My primary thesis is that
around the historically significant threshold of 1989, a new kind of novel as a
global literary form emerged at the conjuncture of three critical phenomena:
the geopolitics of war and violence since the end of the cold war; hypercon-
nectivity through advances in information technology; and the emergence of
a new humanitarian sensibility in a context where suffering has a presence in
everyday life through the immediacy of digital images.
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