By Ian McEwan
I have always had reservations about the Booker Prize. Two years ago I had my
doubts confirmed. In 1996 Graham Swift's Last Orders (a very good novel)
took the prize. Scandal followed when it was suggested that Swift had
plagiarized William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
If that had been all there was to the charge, then it should have simply been
ignored. Swift's borrowing from Faulkner had, after all, been noticed by many
contemporary reviewers, and to call it plagiarism was just absurd.
But then came the response. In a letter by A. N. Wilson, one of the five
judges on the prize panel, it was suggested that the committee hadn't even been
aware of the connection between the two books - despite a relationship so
patently obvious that any English Lit. undergrad would have recognized it after
reading the dustjacket.
Even worse, Wilson confessed that the committee had actually wanted to give
the award to Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace - not because it was a better
book (it wasn't), but because she was "a more distinguished writer."
So much for the Booker Prize. Now on to this year's winner.
Amsterdam is a short novel that plays at the fringes of what most of
us expect a novel to be. Like most of McEwan's work, it is a moral fable, which
means it has to be approached in a slightly different spirit than realistic
fiction. Things like the symmetry and improbability of the plot are a function
of different conventions than we usually see on the best-seller lists.
The story deals, in perfect balance, with events in the lives of two men:
Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday. Clive is the romantic, inner-directed half of
the standard McEwan dichotomy - a composer who writes books on esthetics and
goes hiking in the Lake District for inspiration. Vernon is his practical,
real-world complement - a newspaper editor with few scruples about using his
position to promote a personal vision of the public good.
We first meet Clive and Vernon standing off by themselves at the funeral of
an ex-lover. Things are going well for both. Clive has been commissioned to
write a "millennium symphony" and Vernon's newspaper is beginning to
show signs of a turnaround.
Then, as always in McEwan, there is a moment of crisis (or two moments, one
for each). Put to the test, both Clive and Vernon make poor moral judgments that
come back to haunt them. As a result of a strange pact, each becomes the other's
keeper, and learns at some cost to judge not lest ye be judged.
While it is instantly recognizable, it is not easy to define the McEwanesque.
Although the writing is incredibly economical - there is a lot of plot in Amsterdam
for such a short book - it can't really be called minimalist. The descriptive
writing throughout Clive's hiking trip, for example, is quite fully imagined and
developed. Instead, the word "clinical" comes to mind, describing both
the choice of subject matter and the sharp-edged quality of the prose. His last
novel (Enduring Love) ended with the presentation of a scientific
case-study, and I have a feeling that is an association he would not resist.
Amsterdam is not McEwan's best work (last year's Enduring Love
was more substantial), but it is a welcome change of pace and thoroughly
well-crafted entertainment. Readers coming to McEwan for the first time will
find it an enjoyable introduction, while longtime fans are in for an
Review first published December 12, 1998.