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Last Reviewed on February 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

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Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan, is a darkly comic novella dealing with themes surrounding privacy, control, and death. As in his other novels (Atonement, for example), McEwan crafts a narrative structure that is mostly linear but also has constant small revisions and loops.

An example of this structure is when, in part III, Clive is on a train to the Lake District, stewing over his argument with Vernon. The reader is shown, in great detail, how Clive feels and behaves but not why he feels this way. Eventually the reader is told what actually happened when the discussion that agitated Clive is revealed. This narrative loop provides the reader first with Clive's reaction to the argument and then with the argument itself. By breaking the narrative up this way, McEwan constantly evaluates the complex interplay between perception and reality.

The same thing happens when the narrator reveals Vernon's fate after his ill-advised push to publish the photographs of Julian Garmony. The flip-flopping of the media (for example, the editorial staff of The Judge and its board of directors, as well as the other press who had bid on the photos) is shown in impassive detail. The way that Rose Garmony comes out and shows the photos before they are published by The Judge is another example of this revisionist motif: the importance of the photographs isn't in their existence but in how they are framed and explained. By showing them in advance, Rose is controlling the narrative.

McEwan also deliberately obfuscates details in order to raise suspense and refocus the reader's attention. An example of this is the lack of information the narrator gives about Molly's illness and death and the schemes that both Clive and Vernon contrive to murder each other. The reader is deliberately kept in the dark about the doctors the men hire and the actual process they go through. The murders are only shown from the perspective of the men who are being injected, and they are both under the influence of an unknown drug, which makes them think that the woman administering the poison is Molly, who is dead.

The lack of information in this section of the book is a strong contrast to the level of detail devoted to Clive's numerous creative impulses and Vernon's multiple business decisions. By thoroughly grounding the work in their thought processes and intentions throughout the novel, the curt final section of the book creates an almost absurd contrast: the entire novel has been devoted to the lives of these two men and their various neuroses, and then they are suddenly dead—without so much as a last word.

Vernon's and Clive's deaths also give way to the final reversal of expectation in the text: the whole situation with Julian Garmony was actually orchestrated by George Lane. The release of the photos was a move intended by George to take both Garmony and Vernon out of the equation so that George could mourn Molly in peace without interference from her ex-lovers.

Knowing this, the reader then questions whether Clive and Vernon's assessment of George was actually correct. It is obvious that these two men are incredibly selfish, and this final detail casts more moral ambiguity into the situation by implying that they misunderstood George's actions, which were driven by a love for his dying wife. To further complicate the issue, George is also depicted as unpleasant: he is about to ask Vernon's very recently-widowed wife on a date.

Thus, the novel constructs narratives that constantly throw into doubt the accounts of Molly's life and death and whose situation is the most sympathetic: the reader is left wondering whose perspective is the most accurate. McEwan intentionally does not give an answer.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1731

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 destroying the politician’s career. When Halliday shows the photographs to Linley, the composer finally grasps what drew Molly to Garmony: “the secret life, his vulnerability, the trust that must have bound them closer.” Linley fails to convince his once-close friend that unloosing the pictures on the public will be a betrayal of Molly’s memory.

Halliday’s tactic is to reveal the photographs’ existence prior to publication to make the Judge the nation’s focus, but Rose Garmony, a renowned surgeon and the novel’s only admirable character, calls a press conference to display the photographs of her husband and defuse the scandal. When Halliday publishes the pictures anyway, it is his career, not Garmony’s, that is destroyed. An angry note from Linley leads the editor to seek revenge for this disaster by getting back at the composer. The resolution of this quest in the novel’s hurried final pages results in an absurdist tone reminiscent of McEwan’s early fiction but one that is at odds with the rest of Amsterdam.

The British press, with its escalated obsession with the private lives of both prominent and minor celebrities, has long been a target for satire, with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938) being one of the more successful examples. McEwan was also the victim of such excesses in 1999 with rather intense coverage of a child custody case between the writer and his former wife. Amsterdam includes swipes both at the press and the arrogance of British politicians, who seem more prone than their counterparts anywhere else to scandal, especially in sexual matters. McEwan avoids some of the clichés of media satire by having Halliday act for complicated reasons: trying to protect the nation from a tyrant, attempting to save his newspaper and career, and hoping to establish a sense of identity for himself. Halliday’s method, however, seems destined for failure. Why would the Judge announce the existence of the photographs days before publishing them, thereby giving Garmony time to combat the scandal, the paper’s rivals an opportunity perhaps to find other photographs, and other unexpected events a chance to develop as they do? How does Rose come to possess the same pictures Halliday has? Halliday’s misfired strategy proves his ineptness as an editor.

McEwan’s fiction has always centered on painful ethical decisions, andAmsterdam also examines the ramifications of Linley’s parallel moral dilemma, one in which his creator seems more interested than in Halliday’s petty problems. During a walking tour in the Lake District, Linley is inspired by a bird’s calls to write the movement he needs to complete his symphony. Though he spies an angry confrontation between a man and a woman some distance away, he ignores his civic responsibility so that he can make notes about his inspiration. When he tells Halliday about this event, the editor realizes the man Linley saw is a serial murderer whose crimes have been dominating the news. Linley refuses to contact the Manchester police because he, facing an impending deadline, cannot be distracted from finishing his composition, so Halliday notifies the police himself. Such distractions prevent Linley from making the Millennial Symphony the masterpiece he has intended. In Amsterdam for rehearsals, he discovers his failure while Halliday plots further revenge.

As with much of his fiction, McEwan intends Amsterdam to be a portrait of his times. Looking around at other members of the post-World War II generation during Molly’s funeral, Linley admires their energy and wonders at their luck, their accidental timing. Thinking of the years of Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, he marvels at “how they had flourished under a government they had despised for almost seventeen years.” Later, Linley ponders the fruits of this civilization:

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.

It is not at all clear whether this tired criticism, which goes on for considerable length, is meant to represent the mediocrity of Linley’s views or is unfortunately the best McEwan can do. Artists who use their work as an excuse to evade their responsibilities to society and to those close to them, and intellectuals and politicians who place themselves above the common run of humanity while ignoring their own fatal flaws—these are potentially powerful themes, but McEwan only hints at them.

In a sense, Amsterdam resembles a sketch for a novel rather than a fully realized work, much like Linley’s Millennial Symphony. While American reviewers greeted it for the most part with a shrug, Amsterdam was a surprise winner of the Booker Prize, Britain’s most highly regarded annual literary award. (Beryl Bainbridge’s Master George had been the favorite.) The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dog, profoundly disturbing novels exploring the violence of the age, were short-listed for the award. That McEwan should finally win for a safer, less memorable work is telling about the state of British fiction—or at least the tastes of those who bestow awards.

Amsterdam is also disappointing for the haste or laziness of some of the writing. A description of George’s pretentious but tacky furnishings, for example, serves to define his character, as if people can be merely what they seem on the surface. However, McEwan is too fine a writer forAmsterdam to be a total loss. Even if its characters and themes make little impact, the novel is often well written. McEwan’s considerable talent is best displayed during Linley’s Lake District trek. McEwan shows how isolated artists are from society, how much of this isolation is of their own choosing, and how nature can be both a refuge and an inspiration, though it is not a foolproof weapon against the chaos individuals create against each other. One may wish that more of Amsterdam could have conveyed the power of this section.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (December 1, 1998): 620.

Library Journal 124 (January, 1999): 154.

Los Angeles Times, December 25, 1998, p. E4.

New Statesman 127 (September 11, 1998): 47.

The New York Review of Books 46 (January 14, 1999): 7.

The New York Times Book Review 103 (December 27, 1998): 4.

The New Yorker 74 (December 7, 1998): 197.

People Weekly 51 (January 25, 1999): 47.

Publishers Weekly 245 (November 23, 1998): 60.

Time 152 (December 7, 1998): 225.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 4, 1998, p. 9.