Bookered, Innit?

A Review of Amsterdam

 (to order Amsterdam from, click here)

Reviewed by James Diedrick
1999 by James Diedrick

    In the 1970s, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis were the twin "Bad Boys" of English letters. Amis's novel Dead Babies (1975), a scabrous comedy of ill manners, incited one critic to call its author a "porno-peddler." McEwan's short story collection In Between the Sheets (1978) featuring "Reflections of a Kept Ape," "Dead as They Come," and "Psychopolis," explores the darkest corners of desire and obsession, and helped earn him the nickname "Ian Macabre." Both writers were deeply attuned to what Amis has called the "feeling-tone" of this decade and its youth culture; both were simultaneously drawn to and disturbed by its extremes of personal license and sexual liberation; both created fictional styles that contained without diminishing its volatile energies. And both injected healthy doses of vernacular vitality into British fiction (McEwan was the first to popularize "innit" as the written equivalent for "isn't it," even though it was Amis who immortalized it in the character of London Field's Keith Talent).

    Back then, the differences of perspective between the two writers were striking. Amis, assuming the lordly perspective of the satirist, remained aloof from and superior to the characters in Dead Babies and Success (1978), whereas McEwan identified with many of his--their all-too human obsessions, yearnings, and fears. This is especially apparent in "Psychopolis," whose first-person narrator seems a virtual double of his author. The story, set in Los Angeles, begins as an erotic farce: "Mary worked in and part-owned a feminist bookstore in Venice. I met her there lunchtime on my second day in Los Angeles. That same evening we were lovers, and not so long after that, friends. The following Friday I chained her by the foot to my bed for the whole weekend. It was, she explained to me, something she 'had to go into to come out of.'" But "Psychopolis" quickly modulates into a haunting drama of social and personal anomie. And it ends with its narrator announcing his plan to spend a week in Amsterdam, the city that was then a wide-open haven for the young, the restless, the expatriated--and the self-absorbed.

    Which brings me to Amsterdam, McEwan's latest, and the winner of Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for fiction. It too ends in Amsterdam, here represented as a cosmopolitan haven for the middle aged, the successful, the well-heeled--and the self-absorbed. In Between the Sheets twenty years on, in other words. But this time, Amsterdam is not a way-station on a journey toward an uncertain future; it is a place of final reckoning. The forgivable narcissism of the twenty-something characters from In Between the Sheets has here hardened into the vanity and moral evasions of forty-something professionals, their psyches echoing with what McEwan calls "the insistent, interior voice of self-justification."

    In both subject matter and themes, Amsterdam is about endings. It begins with a memorial service for Molly Lane, which brings together two of her former lovers: Vernon Halliday, editor of the upmarket newspaper the Judge, and his old friend Clive Linley, a self-indulgent composer of considerable reputation. It moves on to unfold an intricate plot full of surprises and reversals in which Halliday and Linley each employ immoral means to achieve personal ends. And it ends with a climax that weaves together a deadly revenge plot and the rehearsal and performance of Linley's "Millenial Symphony," from which, its commissioners hoped, "could be distilled at least one tune, a hymn, an elegy for the maligned and departed century. . . ."

    Saying more about the plot of Amsterdam would drain the novel of its essential energies. McEwan employs an impressive narrative shorthand to render his characters and their self-serving self-appraisals here ("Vernon was himself again, large, benign, ruthless, and good"), and he convincingly renders the texture and rhythm of professional endeavor, from the daily juggling act that produces a newspaper to the process whereby a composer painstakingly crafts a musical motif. Yet these characters never come fully to life; they are less compelling, in fact, than the characters in McEwan's best short stories. Like the characters in Amis's Dead Babies, they are imprisoned within an authorial architecture that consistently subordinates character to theme. As the third-person narrator of Dead Babies says in response to the anguished complaint of one of the novel's characters, "you simply had to be that way . . . merely in order to serve the designs of this particular fiction."

    Amsterdam encourages further comparison with Amis, and his own most recent novel, Night Train (1997). Both novels are short, plot-driven "entertainments" (Night Train is part homage to, part parody of the American detective genre; Amsterdam is a contemporary moral fable in the guise of a suspense novel); both were written in the wake of longer, more ambitious novels (McEwan's Enduring Love and Amis's The Information); both demonstrate that their authors are consummate practitioners of their craft. But a significant reversal has also taken place. As Amis has descended from the lofty perch of the satirist, the emotional temperature of his fiction has risen. From Time's Arrow (1991), whose benighted narrator possesses a poignant understanding of human vulnerability ("Skin is soft. Touch it. It gives. It gives to the touch"), to Night Train, featuring a female protagonist whose emotional pain continually leaks through the cracked shell of her hard-boiled prose, Amis's fiction has become--dare I say it?--more soulful. Meanwhile, McEwan's allegorical impulse has become more insistent, casting a chill over his entire fictional enterprise. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Amsterdam.

    Booker Prize aside, it may be unfair to generalize about McEwan's art on the basis of Amsterdam. McEwan's previous novel, Enduring Love, is a more impressive achievement. Its first chapter, originally published in The New Yorker under the title "Us or Me," is a narrative tour de force, revealing McEwan's impressive mastery of plotting and his ability to seamlessly fuse plot and theme. From four directions, four would-be rescuers converge on a hot-air balloon that is scudding through a field, threatening to carry a 10-year-old boy and his grandfather to their deaths. Allusions to geometry, Darwinian evolution, and Keats also converge here as self-preservation tugs at moral responsibility, reason confronts irrationality, and the rage for order gives way to the free-fall of contingency. Unfortunately, after this remarkable opening, McEwan's schematics take over, the novel's temperature drops, and the characters freeze into the shapes of their arguments. So why did Amsterdam win the Booker this year, when Enduring Love was not even short-listed last year?

    A short and relatively easy read, Amsterdam is surely a marketer's dream. But is it superior to Beryl Bainbridge's Master Georgie, which was also short-listed? For that matter, what does it mean to proclaim Pat Barker's The Ghost Road, published in 1995, a better novel than the short-listed The Moor's Last Sigh, by Salman Rushdie, or the "unlisted" The Information, by Martin Amis? Everyone who keeps track of the yearly award has a favorite outrage; mine is the 1984 award. That year, J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot, and David Lodge's Small World were short-listed; Anita Brookner's soporific Hotel du Lac took home the prize. Oh, and Martin Amis's Money, arguably the best British novel of the decade, never made it to the finals.

    The Booker Prize for fiction is thus something like the Academy Award for best film. It is after all awarded by a committee, with all the politicking and compromise that implies. Middlebrow values often crowd out artistic merit. And while it shines the welcome light of publicity on artistic effort, it often utterly fails to separate the skillful from the lasting. Amsterdam is extremely well crafted, and it goes down smooth, like a fine single-malt scotch. But it lacks the volatility of McEwan's best work, which includes The Comfort of Strangers as well as In Between the Sheets.

    Occasionally, though, McEwan's gift for the startling image makes me forgive his too-tight control, as in this description of Clive's preparation for departure for Amsterdam. Yes, it's also allegorical; but it satisfies: "He had a window seat in an empty row, and through gaps in the fog he could see other airliners waiting competitively in ragged, converging lines, something brooding and loutish in their forms: slit eyes beneath small brains, stunted, encumbered arms, upraised and blackened arseholes. Creatures like this could never care about each other."


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