I was delighted by Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. There wasn’t a time when I became impatient or bored with the story, or when I questioned the style of the writing. In spite of the fact that the two main characters were shallow, ego-driven men that it was impossible to sympathize with, I loved it! It made me think. It made me laugh. I often had to pause in utter sentence envy. McEwan’s matter-of-fact tone, sly word choice, and perfect timing, made this a book that I will have to read again, because I do feel like there is much to be learned here.
McEwan’s tone is matter-of-fact from the first sentence: “Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill” (3). It rarely strays from this straightforward reporting of events. The descriptions of physical actions are concise, without frills: “He stretched, shuddered, yawned” (108). The dialogue is entirely in fragments, without unnecessary words. This works because we aren’t supposed to read too much into the characters of Clive or Vernon. They are shallow. McEwan does linger on Clive a while at times, but only to express the absurdity of the man who supposes he is working for a higher purpose, but in reality, though he claims to loathe the “license of the free artistic spirit” (66) that would allow a person to get out of an obligation, his “higher purpose” leads him to ignore a woman in distress and to murder his best friend.
Clive is the “ridiculous man” that he accuses George of being when he visits him and he turns up fully clothed under his silk robe. His ego over his art has robbed him of his humanity and his intelligence. He can’t even recognize his own vanity: “A genius. Though he sounded it guiltily on his inner ear, he would not let the word reach his lips. He was not a vain man. A genius. It was a term that had suffered from inflationary overuse, but surely there was a certain level of achievement, a gold standard, that was nonnegotiable, beyond mere opinion” (143). Clive is a vain man. This is emphasized again as he lapses into the sleep of death and is “overcome by a sudden deep affection for himself as just the sort of person one should stick by” (182). The matter-of-fact way that McEwan leads us to Clive’s death leaves no room for sympathy. And why sympathize with a man so utterly absorbed in his self that he thinks no one else really misses his former lover Molly, no other artist is as “high” as he is, and no one else really gets the joy of a good hike like he does?
McEwan adds further fuel to what is really a satire, attacking the media (Vernon) and the “arts” (Clive) with his slyly indulgent word choice. His repetition of the phrase “higher calling” or “higher purpose” leave the reader asking the important question of what is the higher calling of media and art? He influences our opinion of the characters by loading his sentences with heavy words like “bloated”, “fervent”, and “misanthropy”. If one were to judge the physical weight of this book by the heaviness of the words and not the pages, it would rival a novel twice its length. His sentences are often concise, clipped, but they are not simple in word choice. This weightiness of words invites the reader to take what is so often absurd and ironic with a certain serious of mind, elevates the satire.
Irony and satire abound from the beginning, as in this description of Molly’s two former lovers (Clive and Vernon) standing in a rose a garden at her memorial that was “marked with a sign, THE GARDEN OF REMEMBERANCE. Each plant had been savagely cut back to within a few inches of the frozen ground, a practice Molly used to deplore. The patch of lawn was strewn with flattened cigarette butts, for this was a place where people came to stand and wait for the funeral party ahead of theirs to clear the building” (4). And yet, McEwan plays on our expectations in other ways too. He chooses to reveal and conceal information in ways that keep us turning pages. For instance, we know about the photos of Garmony for pages and pages before we “see” them. When we do see them, we see them through Clive’s eyes. We expect of course for Clive to have the same reaction as Vernon. He can’t stand Garmony for the same reasons as Vernon: his relationship with Mollly and his conservative politics. However, Clive surprises us. Contrary to what we expect, he sees Garmony’s humanity for the first time in gazing upon the photos of him wearing women’s clothing. Also, there is the fact that when we first look in on Garmony, it is surprisingly from his wife’s perspective and not his. McEwan’s choice of when and how to reveal certain details of the story were really quite breath taking and unpredictable.
Though I can’t say the characters moved me, I can say that the writing in Amsterdam did. The choice of words, the pace and time, and the confident delivery seemed without flaw. I will certainly have to read it again.