While the Booker prize given to Amsterdam last month honors the year’s “best novel” by a writer from the old British Empire, Ian McEwan’s natural milieu is not Britannia but Europe: he writes books that are ready for export, embodying the progressive, internationalist ideals of the new European Union. His books are usually set in London and its postcard surroundings, but they could just as well take place in Brussels or Milan. Their protagonists (cabinet minister, surgeon, professor, scientist) are members of the global knowledge class, the sort of people who are most at home when attending conferences abroad. The plots are sleek and propulsive, owing more to the international medium of the moment— the thriller— than to the tactics McEwan’s peers have used to invigorate the English novel: There are no appeals to the past as in A.S. Byatt and Peter Carey; no local heroes as in Roddy Doyle and Irvine Welsh; no myth of England as in Peter Ackroyd; no manic reinvention of the King’s English as in Salman Rushdie; no relentless comparison of England with someplace else, whether France (Julian Barnes) or America (Martin Amis) or Japan (Kazuo Ishiguro)— no, just a story streamlined to sail through customs, to be translated, published, read, and set down with a sigh across the new Europe.
Amsterdam‘s title signals its internationalism. While the novel is set in London, its final destination is the Dutch city whose liberal euthanasia policies allow McEwan a poisonous final twist. Along the way, Amsterdam follows the pattern of McEwan novels like The Child in Time and Enduring Love. The story is not broad but deep, plunging the reader into the ice water of somebody else’s calamity; and the somebody is an expert whose specialty colors his telling of the story. In Enduring Love, a science writer is trailed by a cheerful Christian who, like him, witnessed a ballooning accident, but who sees it as God’s way of bringing them together; in The Child in Time, a children’s-book writer’s daughter disappears from the checkout line at the supermarket, never to be found. The one is thick with metaphors having to do with natural selection and “the language instinct,” the other with artful ruminations on the raising of children.
In Amsterdam there are two protagonists, and the calamity is the death of a friend, and the death of a friendship. Clive Linley, a classical composer, is trying to finish a “Millennial Symphony”; Vernon Halliday, an editor, is trying to rescue a newspaper called the Judge from declining circulation and “the dead hand of the grammarians.” As the novel opens they are lingering in “The Garden of Remembrance” after the funeral for their charismatic friend Molly, who suddenly got a strange disease, lost her mind, and died without knowing what had happened to her. Each man was once her lover; and standing there, they wonder what Molly saw in her last lover— the foreign secretary Julian Garmony, a “xenophobic” conservative who is strutting self-importantly nearby. They mock Molly’s husband, a rich publisher named George, as a control freak who stage-managed her last months. And they agree that Molly’s helpless death was a terrible way to go— so terrible that they eventually make a euthanasia pact. If one of them were to become ill and lose his sanity, they vow, the other would arrange for him to be put to death.
Then Garmony butts in and, after a quarrel, diplomatically tells Clive to fuck off, setting in motion a relentless sequence of plot twists and double crosses, which evokes both a Molière comedy and the Lewinsky scandal. What drew Molly to Garmony, it turns out, was his secret desire to dress as a woman. During their affair she photographed him in “a plain three-quarter-length dress, posing catwalk style.” Now, to get revenge on Garmony for having an affair with his late wife, George brings the photographs to Vernon, suggesting publication in the Judge. To sabotage Garmony’s bid for prime minister— and to boost the Judge‘s circulation— Vernon decides to publish them. He asks Clive for moral support, but Clive refuses: he thinks Vernon is betraying their dead friend. Suddenly— and here the plot takes a fatally implausible twist— two friends who have pledged to kill each other if they go mad are each convinced that the other has gone mad.
The novel advances from there in swift chapters— the two men’s thoughts rendered in lean and striking paraphrase, and their interior monologues alternating with satire about the chattering classes and sharp commentary about the flimsiness of their friendships. The two men see friendship as an obstacle to professional success. As Vernon and the Judge rush to publish the photographs, “one small matter denied him complete happiness: Clive,” and as Clive struggles to finish the “Millennial Symphony” his rage at Vernon so distracts him that he can’t find a melody for the last few measures. As their friendship unravels, they convince themselves that there was never really a friendship at all.
Through deft references to the new Europe (Clive’s symphony will be conducted by an Italian, performed by the British Symphony Orchestra, and rehearsed at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw), McEwan makes this centerless kind of friendship seem analogous to the European Union, an alliance born of convenience and self-interest rather than principle or defense against a common enemy. Whereas Vernon is a typical tabloid editor, Clive Linley is the more complicated character, because his struggle to make authentic art for a broad public is also the struggle of writers such as McEwan himself. McEwan presents Clive as a lite classical composer like Sir Paul McCartney, yet one who aspires to the greatness of Henry Purcell. McEwan also gives Clive his most striking observations, like this one of the wrecked beauty of the land surrounding London— “a river straightened to a concreted sluice . . . and roads, new roads probing endlessly, shamelessly, as though all that mattered was to be elsewhere.” And Clive is made to face the only convincing moral dilemma in the book. During a hike in the Lake Country, he walks away from a rape about to take place because he has just hit on the melody he needs— a phrase that is traditional and memorable and stirring, with “the element of surprise that would be the guarantee of originality.”
Clive seems to embody the serious artist in an age of arts councils and literary thrillers— aspiring to greatness and permanence, but with one eye on the headlines and the other on the market. McEwan keeps the reader guessing about Clive— genius, or fake?— until the end. Then he undoes the book. Suddenly Clive and Vernon are dead— each man, unbelievably, kept his promise— and Clive’s “Millennial Symphony” is declared a dud. Satire overwhelms realism, plot outruns character and theme reducing Amsterdam to little more than a higher airplane read. Why did McEwan do it? Maybe the euthanasia twist is his idea of an artistic surprise that will guarantee his novel’s originality. Or it is his solution to the problem of serious art: you may express your yearnings for artistic grandeur, as long as you deflate them as pretensions in the end. In any case, Amsterdam winds up unsettled rather than unsettling. Let’s hope that Amsterdam isn’t the model for the Euro-novel of the future, for it is a book in a tremendous hurry to get where it is going— but one with no real destination.