Review: Amsterdam (1998) by Ian McEwan   Leave a comment

Often long-established authors, having been overlooked several times, end up being decorated for their lesser works, and in the case of Amsterdam, for which Ian McEwan won the Man Booker Prize, this pattern holds true. Not that Amsterdam is a bad book, but when I compare it to McEwan’s best – Atonement, of course, along with Black Dogs and Enduring Love – it doesn’t quite reach those same heights.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to admire the way McEwan writes. While managing to be as urgently postmodern in his style and themes as any other contemporary writer, McEwan pays great attention to the intricacies of plot and character. There is no navel-gazing in Ian McEwan’s novels, which always have at their center some motivating event or other that, like a stone being dropped into a still pool of water, sends a series of waves rippling through the rest of the plot – the discovery of the corpse in The Innocent, the balloon accident at the beginning of Enduring Love, the false accusation of Robbie in Atonement, and so on.

Although the death of Molly Lane at the beginning of Amsterdam appears set to follow this same pattern, it is not the central event. Instead, her death brings together two of her former lovers, the composer Clive Linley and the newspaper editor Vernon Halliday. Rather than a single event, McEwan provides his two main characters with two moments that have broader consequences: for Clive, his failure to intervene in a possible rape so that he can grasp hold of a moment of musical inspiration; for Vernon, his decision to publish front-page pictures of Julian Garmony, a right-wing politician who was also a former lover of Molly’s, dressed as a woman.

McEwan draws Clive and Vernon together first as friends and then, when circumstances turn against them, as enemies out to destroy each other. This pattern bears a strong resemblance to what happens to Bernard and June Tremaine, the husband and wife in Black Dogs who, having been drawn together by their Communist ideals, have their marriage torn apart by deep philosophical disagreements. Amsterdam and Black Dogs are both intended by McEwan, it seems to me, to be documents of their time, a summary judgment of the failures of the twentieth century as it draws to a close.

Like Bernard and June, Clive and Vernon are given opposing perspectives on the world – highbrow and lowbrow, artistic and commercial – that, for all their apparent disagreements, end up collapsing into an orgy of self-righteousness and mutual hatred. The perspective we get on the British media is, as one might expect, scathing, with McEwan delineating its willingness to plumb the depths of human depravity at the expense of any sort of sophistication or culture. Pages dedicated to literature and the arts are reassigned to sports, and real news is converted into grotesque sensationalism.

Just as scathing, though, is McEwan’s description of the complacency of the cultured elite. His assessment of how Clive has benefited from the post-war boom while denying the same privileges to the next generation is razor sharp, particularly when one considers that McEwan himself is a product of this era. “Nurtured in the postwar settlement with the state’s own milk and juice, and then sustained by their parents’ tentative, innocent prosperity, to come of age in full employment, new universities, bright paperback books, the Augustan age of rock and roll, affordable ideals,” writes McEwan. “When the ladder crumbled behind them, when the state withdrew her tit and became a scold, they were safe, they consolidated and settled down to forming this or that – taste, opinion, fortunes” (p.13). Such, then, is the state of post-Thatcher Britain, which forms part of a repeated pattern of social ideals that end in despair and inequality.

The curious thing about modernity, McEwan notes, is that this despair and inequality seems to emerge, paradoxically, from cultural origins that promise great beauty, joy, and hope. In making this point, Amsterdam points repeatedly back to the Romantics. The Millennium Symphony that Clive Linley is composing, for instance, is compared to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” In a conversation toward the end of the novel, Clive tells how he once set the Romantic poet William Blake’s “The Poison Tree” to music. And of course, when he is in need of inspiration, Clive habitually retreats to the Lake District, a region of England that occupies a privileged place in English letters, having inspired authors such as William Wordsworth and Jane Austen.

Initially when I got to the end of Amsterdam I was a bit nonplussed by the way that McEwan failed to upstage my expectations as to how the story would end. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that the novel’s depressing spiral was crucial to the point that McEwan was trying to make about the history of modernity, which is that no matter how forceful the push for change and reform, no matter how “enlightened” and scientifically advanced we become, the tedious fact remains that human society continues to resort to the old tactics of brutality and conflict. The more things appear to change, the more they stay the same. The city of Amsterdam comes to symbolize this paradox in the novel. “There was never a city more rationally ordered,” writes McEwan, and yet it turns out to be the place where people can get away with murder (p.168).

What makes Amsterdam a somewhat less successful novel than its closest cousin, Black Dogs, is its lack of a third perspective. In Black Dogs that role is played by Jeremy, Bernard and June’s son-in-law, who mediates between the conflict of the two central characters, and whose ability to see the gray areas that Bernard and June miss provides the novel with a hint of ambiguity and even hope. Amsterdam, however, feels a little unbalanced in this respect, and therefore underdeveloped – one might easily, one suspects, have transcended the doom and gloom of the bitter fight between Clive and Vernon by complicating our view of one of the other characters – Julien Garmony, perhaps, or George Lane, or even, best of all, Molly.

Rating: 3.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted February 25, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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