Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Amsterdam" by Ian McEwan

I was so excited to find this book at my local library, which in the past I have frequently found to be sadly lacking. This wasn't one of the Ian McEwan books I was looking for, but only because I didn't know about it.

I'm not sure why (maybe because the title of this book and the setting of the beginning of The Amnesiac are one and the same?) but for about the first half of this book my mind kept trying to tell me it was authored by Sam Taylor rather than McEwan. Or maybe it's because it is set in the present instead of the past. Or maybe because the length of this novel is more similar to The Amnesiac than Atonement. Anyway, once I was sufficiently sucked in by the story I gave up comparisions.

It bears noting that all major characters in this book are obscenely narcissistic and slightly insane. Brazen narcissism and slight insanity may be more common than I realize, but I think it was a little overdone in this novel. At least in real life people tend to hide these flaws better. But even though I found the novel somewhat unrealistic in this aspect, this was not a major failing when taking the entire novel into account. It was well written, and a very interesting glimpse into the psyches of a few privileged and elite Brits. Who knows, maybe among the Masters of the Universe such narcissistic insanity really is the norm.

I absolutely loved the way McEwan introduced the fact that Vernon Halliday was no longer the editor of The Judge. You read an account of the next staff meeting, not even really noticing that the editor isn't mentioned by name. It isn't until the very end of the passage, when you know the editor is speaking and you read "Frank said" rather than "Vernon said," that you realize what has happened. It's a sudden, eye-opening revelation. First you have to go back and re-read the passage in light of the new information. Then you realize that Frank's aspirations were higher than you were led to believe. It never really comes right out and says so, but I bet Frank is the one who leaked the incriminating photos to the Garmonys. Then you have to go back to the previous chapter and see that George Lane is the one who came up with the way for The Judge to lay all the blame on Halliday while itself emerging relatively unscathed. (Because maybe the first time you read that part you mistakenly assumed that Lane was speaking up in support of Halliday). Then you wonder if it's possible that this was all part of Lane's plan--that he had the foresight to not only assure Garmony's political demise, but that he could also take down Halliday on the way. No matter how premeditated the results were on Lane's part, it is clear that he was vastly underestimated when Vernon and Clive saw him as weak. Oh, the convoluted intrigue!

Though the idea of the "mutual homicide" at the end was somewhat maudlin, and I saw it coming from the moment Clive boarded the airplane with 10 grand in his carryon, it definitely added suspense and increased the tempo to, if not a frantic pace, then at least to an enjoyable level of tension. I almost expected George Lane to kill off his last remaining rival when they arrived in Amsterdam, but it's good that he didn't; that would have stretched my suspension of disbelief to its breaking point. It was hard enough to make the leap from Clive and Vernon both being hurt and desiring revenge to plotting each other's murder, though I managed it.

I don't understand the reference on the back cover saying this book is "a comic novel". Maybe I misunderstand the definition of that phrase, but to me, this means the novel is supposed to be amusing. I didn't notice any funny parts in this book--not even any parts where it appeared that the author attempted humor and failed--not even if I extend the definition to include comedy so dark that it's darker than an underground cavern when your flashlight batteries die. I do, however, agree with another part of the same sentence calling the novel "a sharp contemporary morality tale." It was very interesting to see each of several characters denouncing another for their lack of principles, thinking they themselves were taking the high moral ground, while completely failing to meet commonly accepted standards in another area of their life.

Good book. Glad I didn't buy it, but nice to know my local library has at least a few obscure and perhaps flawed but still brilliant gems.

1 comment:

Amy said...

I will have to look for this at my library...I've only read Atonement by him as of yet...