Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam

AmsterdamAt the center of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam is Molly Lane, or rather her ghost. Molly was a journalist and bon vivant whose many lovers, not all of whom are on good terms, come together at her funeral. Among these are Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor, Julian Garmony, the country’s right-wing Foreign Secretary, and Clive Linley, a highly regarded composer. It is Molly’s connection to these three men, and to her husband, George Lane, that bring them together and set them at odds, inciting their various jealousies and insecurities.

This is also McEwan’s only Booker Prize-winning novel, despite some six nominations, which is particularly surprising given that Amsterdam is not a very good novel. Its characters are listless forgeries, poorly developed and poorly delineated, and particularly ill-suited to what appear to be McEwan’s intentions. I say “appear to be” because these intentions are never really made clear, at least not until the abrupt conclusion, when an unlikely plot twist results in a double homicide and the Machiavellian scheming of lesser characters is finally revealed. Ostensibly this is satire, a mockery of the noble pretensions of Britain’s wealthy accomplished by a drawing back of the curtain, where the uglier human motivations of greed, revenge and narcissism had been hiding all along, but it feels hopelessly forced. This is also a failure of plotting: what might have been a successful character study is reduced to a failed satire by sheer carelessness, a reliance on improbabilities that strain the reader’s credulity.

McEwan is not a satirist. His best novels rely on compassion for his characters, and compassion cannot help but get in the way of effective satire, because how can you mock what you love?