Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam, inexplicably winner of the 1998 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, is a remarkably uneven novel … one is nearly tempted to say disjointed. 

That is not to say that Ian McEwan’s prose style is lacking.  He is not a luminescent stylist in the manner of, say, Michael Chabon, but McEwan writes with a striking economy of line and incisive ability to capture character with a phrase.  So how did so accomplished a writer fail so badly with this book…?

Amsterdam tells the story of four people, one dead and her three surviving lovers.  The novel opens at the funeral of Molly Lane, who died painfully after a swift and debilitating illness.  Molly seems to be that perfect woman who can only be realized post mortem: she is loving, sexy, talented, erudite, carefree and supportive.  Clearly too difficult to write in anything other than the reminiscences of other characters. 

Among the mourners are composer Clive Linley and newspaper editor Vernon Halliday.  Each had longish affairs with Molly in the past, and are friendly with each other independent of her.  Also attending is Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, another of Molly’s ex-lovers.  Garmony is an extreme right-winger (he would seem to be nearly as loathsome as our former President Bush) in line to become Prime Minister who uses the funeral as an event to glad hand reporters.

Also attending is Molly’s husband George, a wealthy publisher of trashy books. 

Following the funeral, Clive -- perhaps McEwan’s one sympathetic character in the novel -- fears that he too may be ill.  Both he and Vernon were upset by the horrific details of Molly’s passing and he discusses end-of-life care with Vernon.  Both men vow that if either becomes too sick or too debilitated with illness to live with dignity, that the healthy man will help the other find the release of death.

Clive’s illness proves to be nothing more than anxiety, and the novel lurches to its next key plot point: George has uncovered, among Molly’s effects, compromising photos of Garmony in drag.  He sells them to Vernon’s newspaper and Clive and Vernon argue bitterly over the morality of publishing them.

Vernon decides to print them, and is absorbed in the roll-up to publication while Clive works on his symphony, commissioned by the government to celebrate the coming millennium.  The bitter words exchanged have festered to some degree in both men, and their misunderstandings escalate after Garmony out-maneuvers Vernon by having his wife make the photos public herself.

All of this is good stuff.  Both Clive and Vernon are realistically rendered, each with a some degree of sympathy.  And while this is not a comic novel per se, there is a great deal of humor in the depiction of each man.  We also get an idea of the inner workings of Clive as an artist.  Here he is thinking while taking a train across London:

In his corner of West London, and in his self-preoccupied daily round, it was easy for Clive to think of civilization as the sum of all the arts, along with design, cuisine, good wine, and the like.  But now it appeared that this was what it really was – square miles of meager modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of traffic.  It looked like a raucous dinner party the morning after.  No one would have wished it this way, but no had been asked.  Nobody planned it, nobody wanted it, but most people had to live in it.  To watch it mile after mile, who would have guessed that kindness or the imagination, that Purcell or Britten, Shakespeare of Milton, had ever existed?

What happens to McEwan’s book then is quite tragic – the final chapter seems to flee from the main body of his story and turn into some kind of grotesque shaggy dog story.    Let me make this clear – the closing chapter of Amsterdam seems to belong to another book; it comes almost completely from left field, as if McEwan suddenly remembered he had been writing a comic novel, and decided to close it off with an unfunny joke.

With his conclusion, McEwan successfully breaks the covenant between writer and reader by effectively defacing and erasing all that has come before.  What is doubly confusing to your correspondent is that McEwan seems to want to write a straight novel while playing some cheap kind of post modernist game.  That Amsterdam won the Booker Prize is just one unpalatable aspect of the book among many.

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