Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

Amsterdam was received with mixed reviews. Although it has brilliant plotting, the story focuses on the nastiness in human behavior. Few readers are likely to feel great pain in witnessing, for example, Vernon Halliday’s decline and fall. As the editor of a respectable newspaper, he resorts to the tactics of the tabloids to increase sales. He is so convinced that his views are right that he attempts to destroy the reputation of a politician who does not share his liberal views. Vernon deludes himself into thinking that his exposure of Julian is for the good of the country and not for his own satisfaction in discrediting and humiliating another person.

Clive Linley is a more problematical character, in large part because he is an artist. Society is not simply more tolerant of the shortcomings of artists, who are often expected to be different; society tends to revere those whose art may last forever. William Faulkner, arguably one of America’s greatest novelists, was asked by an interviewer whether he thought writers have to make sacrifices: Faulkner said that “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.” Amsterdam demonstrates the dangers of this view, especially for those artists, like Clive, who work alone and can easily lose a sense of perspective. Clive, for example, deludes himself into believing that his music will not be understood, much less appreciated, unless he produces a monumental symphony comparable to Beethoven’s Ninth.

Amsterdam also was controversial for its depiction of tolerant and lenient liberal attitudes, especially those of the Dutch. While the Netherlands may have had the best of intentions for those persons hoping to end their lives because of terminal illnesses, few expected Amsterdam would become the euthanasia capital of the world. Perhaps even worse, McEwan’s Amsterdam discredits the convention that one cannot get away with murder. Clive and Vernon, it could be argued, killed each other.

The power of George Lane’s vengeance may have not been limited to the deaths of Clive and Vernon. Critic Robert E. Kohn asserts that Clive eased Molly’s pain through euthanasia, but a closer reading indicates Clive was merely imagining what he might have done if Molly had been his wife. The point is that neither Clive nor George performed euthanasia; indeed, there is a distinct possibility that George resisted the impulse to accelerate Molly’s death, less because his love for her was so great he could not bear to lose her, and more because he felt the agony of cancer was punishment for her casual attitudes toward marital fidelity.

Amsterdam earned for Ian McEwan the Booker Prize in 1998, but not without controversy. Some believe the novel was too slight to be awarded the prize. After the award announcement, Douglas Hurd, the chair of the Booker Prize committee and himself a former Conservative Party foreign secretary, revealed that the committee’s decision to award the prize to McEwan had been a compromise. He said that Amsterdam was given the prize by default because there were no “overwhelming masterpiece[s]” among the short-listed novels. To further the irony, McEwan’s next and perhaps best novel, Atonement (2002), lost the competition because McEwan had recently won the prize for Amsterdam. McEwan’s next novel, On Chesil Beach (2007), was favored for the Booker Prize as well but, once again, controversy kept the prize from him. Reviewers and bloggers attacked the work for being not a novel but a novella. Few, if anyone, seemed to notice that it was just about the length of Amsterdam.

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