Ian McEwan’s usual bleak view of life in twentieth century Europe softened somewhat with his previous novel, Enduring Love (1998), an examination of the redeeming power of love. Amsterdam, a darkly comic reflection on the moral responsibilities of artists and the media, almost returns McEwan to the somber concerns of his earlier fiction. Though praised in the United Kingdom, Amsterdam is a slight, obvious work, considerably inferior to such McEwan novels as The Cement Garden(1978), The Comfort of Strangers (1981), and Black Dog (1992).
Longtime friends Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday meet again at the funeral of Molly Lane, a restaurant critic who has been the lover of each on and off for almost thirty years. Molly’s death causes Linley and Halliday to reconsider their friendship, their feelings about Molly, and their lives in general. Intertwined in these reflections are actions by George Lane, Molly’s wealthy husband, and Julian Garmony, a right-wing politician who has also, to Linley and Halliday’s bewilderment, been Molly’s lover.
Of the two protagonists, Linley is the most fully developed and the one McEwan seems to sympathize with most. Linley is a famous composer, who was selected over some “pop star chap, the ex- Beatle,” to write the Millennial Symphony to celebrate his nation at the end of the twentieth century. (Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is his model.) Considered the heir to twentieth century composer Ralph Vaughan Williams by some, Linley has been acclaimed and vilified as an opponent of atonal experimentation for his attempts “to reassert music’s essential communicativeness.” Linley is torn as a liberal who sees himself as a man very much of his times yet is perceived as conservative and old-fashioned by others. The Millennial Symphony is an opportunity to create a work of such brilliance that his naysayers will be embarrassed into silence.
With two failed marriages, Linley has achieved his greatest nonmusical fulfillment during the two times in 1968 and 1979 he and Molly lived together. After she rejected his proposal, they developed a brother-sister relationship: “They were companionable, too wry with each other to be passionate, and they liked to be free to talk about their affairs.”
Music is not enough to make Linley’s life meaningful, and Molly’s death leaves him fearing failure and loneliness.
Halliday, who lived with Molly in 1974 and had another brief affair with her in the 1980’s, also experiences a form of alienation. Editor of the Judge, a London daily newspaper in decline, Halliday has begun to doubt his existence since the funeral:
[H]e was simply the sum of all the people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all. When he reached, in solitude, for a thought, there was no one there to think it.
Unlike Linley’s career, Halliday’s career has been thoroughly undistinguished. He owes his limited journalistic success to accidents, breaking a major story only when a tip came from a United States congressman who mistook him for a Washington Post writer. At theJudge, he is constantly on guard against his jealous, duplicitous colleagues who pretend to admire him while looking for a chance to stab him in the back. His marriage and the latest in a succession of lovers provide little solace.
Another accident of sorts gives Halliday the opportunity to save his newspaper and his career. At Molly’s funeral, both he and Linley are repelled by the presence of Garmony, a possible future prime minister whose views clash with theirs and Molly’s as well. When Linley begins questioning Garmony’s support of capital punishment, the politician threatens to talk about what he says Molly told him about the composer’s sexual inadequacy so that others can hear. They wonder how she could have been the lover of such a monster.
Ironically, George Lane provides an answer and a chance at revenge. Following his wife’s death, Lane, a part owner of the Judge, discovers photographs she took of Garmony wearing women’s clothes. Publishing the pictures will help restore some of the newspaper’s circulation while...
(The entire section is 1731 words.)