By Ian McEwan
I have always had reservations about the Booker Prize. Two years ago I had my doubts confirmed. In 1996 Graham Swift’s Last Orders (a very good novel) took the prize. Scandal followed when it was suggested that Swift had plagiarized William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
If that had been all there was to the charge, then it should have simply been ignored. Swift’s borrowing from Faulkner had, after all, been noticed by many contemporary reviewers, and to call it plagiarism was just absurd.
But then came the response. In a letter by A. N. Wilson, one of the five judges on the prize panel, it was suggested that the committee hadn’t even been aware of the connection between the two books – despite a relationship so patently obvious that any English Lit. undergrad would have recognized it after reading the dustjacket.
Even worse, Wilson confessed that the committee had actually wanted to give the award to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace – not because it was a better book (it wasn’t), but because she was “a more distinguished writer.”
So much for the Booker Prize. Now on to this year’s winner.
Amsterdam is a short novel that plays at the fringes of what most of us expect a novel to be. Like most of McEwan’s work, it is a moral fable, which means it has to be approached in a slightly different spirit than realistic fiction. Things like the symmetry and improbability of the plot are a function of different conventions than we usually see on the best-seller lists.
The story deals, in perfect balance, with events in the lives of two men: Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday. Clive is the romantic, inner-directed half of the standard McEwan dichotomy – a composer who writes books on esthetics and goes hiking in the Lake District for inspiration. Vernon is his practical, real-world complement – a newspaper editor with few scruples about using his position to promote a personal vision of the public good.
We first meet Clive and Vernon standing off by themselves at the funeral of an ex-lover. Things are going well for both. Clive has been commissioned to write a “millennium symphony” and Vernon’s newspaper is beginning to show signs of a turnaround.
Then, as always in McEwan, there is a moment of crisis (or two moments, one for each). Put to the test, both Clive and Vernon make poor moral judgments that come back to haunt them. As a result of a strange pact, each becomes the other’s keeper, and learns at some cost to judge not lest ye be judged.
While it is instantly recognizable, it is not easy to define the McEwanesque. Although the writing is incredibly economical – there is a lot of plot in Amsterdam for such a short book – it can’t really be called minimalist. The descriptive writing throughout Clive’s hiking trip, for example, is quite fully imagined and developed. Instead, the word “clinical” comes to mind, describing both the choice of subject matter and the sharp-edged quality of the prose. His last novel (Enduring Love) ended with the presentation of a scientific case-study, and I have a feeling that is an association he would not resist.
Amsterdam is not McEwan’s best work (Enduring Love was more substantial), but it is a welcome change of pace and thoroughly well-crafted entertainment. Readers coming to McEwan for the first time will find it an enjoyable introduction, while longtime fans are in for an elegant surprise.
Review first published December 12, 1998.