I often wonder that people read a book only once. Some will listen to music over and over, often see the same movie multiple times. But not so with books. All this to say this is my third (or fourth – I forget) reading of McEwan’s short novel, Amsterdam. With well-written fiction pieces such as this one, there’s plenty to appreciate through multiple readings.
My take this time through McEwan’s book is that he’s the master (please don’t shudder as I use this term) of the postmodern novel. Oh, he’s not the phrase-turner that several of his contemporaries are, but that’s by choice, I think. He throws in a juicy phrase occasionally, just to prove he can, but his interest in writing lies elsewhere. Maybe a spin through his plot will serve as something of an explanation.
Two old friends, Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday are mirrors – opposing personality poles to one another. Clive is a composer of modern orchestral music (a supposed rival of “that McCartney fellow”), who's having a few middle-aged health challenges. He’s also been commissioned to score an orchestral piece to commemorate the millennium (this book was published in 1999).
Vernon is editor of one of London’s newspapers, The Judge, and is struggling—as have been a couple of his predecessors—to keep the paper afloat. He’s also struggling in other ways: he seems short on the personal skills necessary to maintain friendships through decades of life, and he’s somewhat thin money-wise.
But the two have commonalities, other than their being pals. They both profess a uniquely British liberality, socially and politically. And they’ve both visited the same woman, the beautiful and sexually adventurous Molly Lane.
While Vernon has both feet planted in the pragmatism of modern journalism, Clive is quite the romantic (as in Wordsworth). Vernon's possessed with the idea of undoing conservative Foreign Secretary, Julian Garmony (also a lover of Molly), who's being touted as the next Prime Minister. Clive eschews development and technology as much as is possible these days, opting for rural rambles to shore up his waning composition skills. In fact, on one such stroll, he witnesses a woman being attacked. He abhors this experience, but so as not to interfere with his mental composing he hides and ignores the beating. Meanwhile, Vernon has obtained pictures of Garmony in full transvestite regalia (the pictures, of course having been taken by Molly), and he opts to run the most provocative pic on The Judge’s front page.
The pic backfires, as does Clive’s latest symphony – and Clive's avoidance of the woman’s beating. It’s a beautifully paced story, with an ending a mystery writer would be proud of, and I won’t spoil that moment for future readers. Suffice it to say that Clive and Vernon, who become at odds over the Garmony affair, patch up their friendship during what turns out to be a fateful visit to Amsterdam.
For McEwan, plots, scenic narrative, and historical backdrops are merely a canvas on which to paint the lives of his characters. Here, as in the later Atonement, he looks deeply into human makeup and dredges its spoils, but in a completely believable and somewhat uplifting manner. His characters are Brits, naturally, and their life choices must be dealt with in what seems to this Yank a most stiff-upper-lip fashion. Still, his characters are everyday types in McEwan’s eyes, even while they may be socially glam types.
This is where his understated prose comes in: he wants to humanize, to humble, yet to cinch up without seeming apocalyptic. Were he to use the flowery language of his Irish rivals, and a few of his Yank contemporaries, he’d have had them out on a romantic limb he dare not saw off. McEwan IS an everyman sort of writer, but one who knows how to work both sides of the social fence with equal ease and believability.