Before the pandemic, work, as McEwan suggests in his novel Saturday, is “… the ultimate badge of health”.
Only those who had retired or physically could not work were excluded from such a task. Companies were becoming more inclusive every year to ensure there was access for as many people as possible — although there is still a long way to go!
Now, nearly one year into the pandemic, it is clear work is not quite what McEwan thought it was. Or maybe on a deeper level, it is a lot like he thought it was. Work is something designed for machines, for those who can work through anything. Like the key workers who despite crying from desperation for a break, still have to work the same job every day.
McEwan’s novel follows the protagonist Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, who has Saturday off work. Plans to resurrect family bonds, play squash and visit his mother are soon complicated when experiencing an insomniac episode, Perowne watches a plane plummet across London.
The single event triggers a whole different course in his day, and everything begins to spiral out of control. Perowne first believes the plane is linked to the recent 9/11 attack, a situation parallel to his own that was becoming out of control.
Only when Perowne returns to work at the end of the day does he feel stable again. He is able to use the monotony of his job to stable his mind and emotions. McEwan makes it seem like we crave work to avoid freedom and responsibility.
But right now, we want nothing more than to take back control of our lives. We no longer want work to provide a stable basis to the nights out we once had. Instead, we want a party popper to burst and light up our lives. We want to escape being machines, stacking shelves and saving lives, to break the laws and have parties.
The pandemic has created a shift on the perspective of work and suddenly we realise that we have fallen victim to capitalism.
Perowne had realised “He’s lost the habits of scepticism, he’s becoming dim with contradictory opinions, he isn’t thinking clearly, and just as bad, he senses he isn’t thinking independently”.
Suddenly we are not believing everything we hear on the news. Yes COVID is very much real, but what is coming out of politicians mouths is often not. We find ourselves developing our own opinions about the situation around us, and what we would do if we were in their position.
No longer in the workplace, those who are working from home are not under the influence of the public. And “with their invisible glow of consciousness – these engines devise their own tracks”.
Office workers now have their own routine, their own views about the world around them. In the safety of their own homes, individuals have begun to awaken to who they might be. The possibility of being coded like a machine is no more.
At first, thrown off their tracks, like Perowne. Now creating a new and improved world within their living room. The only public influence beaming in through screens. But even that holds little weight anymore.
The pandemic has created distinct and independent individuals. At least it has out of those who followed the rules. The rules were made to object and control, but they have actually created a path to freedom.
With mental clarity and tranquillity, we don’t have Saturday’s like Perowne anymore. Nothing can take us by surprise because we expect everything and accept nothing. We have become what Perowne wishes he could be — sceptics.