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An Interesting Stumble

By whatbenwatches | Books | July 26, 2010 |

By whatbenwatches | Books | July 26, 2010 |

I have a theory about Ian McEwan’s works. The first one of his books you read you’ll absolutely love. In my case, it was On Chesil Beach, a svelte novel that absolutely floors you with its denouement. I was so impressed with it that I read Saturday, a novel that already seemed to have similar themes and tropes from Beach, but was nonetheless engaging and well-written.

Now we have Amsterdam, which won McEwan the Booker Prize, and it’s another of McEwan’s shorter works that, regardless of length, still packs a lot of material into its compact size. It tells the story of Clive, a preeminent modern composer finishing what is set to be his career-defining masterpiece, a symphony to commemorate the approaching millennium. In parallel narrative, we also follow newspaper editor Vernon, who must decide whether or not his paper will run a puff piece leaking sexually compromising photographs of politician Julian taken by his lover Molly, who also happens to be an ex-lover of both Clive and Vernon.

Such a complex web McEwan has woven!

As is usually the case with McEwan, we get psychological introspection for Clive and Vernon. What McEwan aims for in this book is the exploration of the relationship that has festered over the years between Clive and Vernon and ultimately the lengths to which they’ll go to one-up each other. This all comes to a very literal conclusion at the end that frankly strains the boundaries of believability and ultimately prevented me from enjoying the book as a whole.

For most of the time, though, McEwan continually demonstrates his prowess with language, including the following passage that I absolutely love:

“In his corner of West London, and in his self-pre-occupied 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 one 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 or Milton, had ever existed? Occasionally, as the train gathered speed and they swung farther away from London, countryside appeared and with it the beginnings of beauty, or the memory of it, until seconds later it dissolved into a river straightened to a concreted sluice or a sudden agricultural wilderness without hedges or trees, and roads, new roads probing endlessly, shamelessly, as though all that mattered was to be elsewhere. As far as the welfare of every other living form on earth was concerned, the human project was not just a failure, it was a mistake from the very beginning.”

You can’t read stuff like this and not appreciate how talented McEwan is. The problem with Amsterdam is that these well-written passages are in the service of a plot that is just plain goofy when all is said and done. For a book so concerned with the psychological complexities at hand in a long-standing friendship, when the book collapses into soap opera theatrics, it’s all a bit disconcerting. I’ve yet to read Atonement, McEwan’s supposed masterpiece, but given my experiences with him so far, I fear that it’ll end up being a lot of the same themes, shuffled around a bit. For my money, On Chesil Beach is McEwan’s best and Amsterdam an interesting stumble.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of whatbenwatches’ reviews, check out his blog, A Good Talk or Pancakes.

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