Monday, December 20, 2004

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan

My first encounter with McEwan's works was back in the late 1980's, when I read the Comfort of Strangers. I don't recall much of the story, but still remember being both engrossed and disturbed by it. Reading what is said at it is little wonder I felt disturbed:
"The book is concerned with the passivity which “allows” aggression, male violence, and patriarchy to be perpetuated. [Sadist] Robert is not that far from [victims] Colin and Mary, the book suggests. The influences of his father and grandfather have brought out his will to power (in a society otherwise comprised of women) while his influence on Colin and Mary is to bring to the surface their fantasies of aggression: Mary's desire to cut off Colin's limbs and make him her immobile slave; Colin's wish to devise a machine to “fuck” Mary brutally and inexorably.

McEwan adds debates over patriarchy and feminism to this mix, but the gender divide is not simplistically adhered to, as male aggression is not simply directed towards women, but towards beauty and towards that which is desired. In this case, it is Colin who is the object of Robert and Caroline's desire: a drive to possess that can only find fulfilment in the annihilation of the Other. McEwan is dealing here with the idea that human desire is fundamentally underwritten by a master/slave dialectic, in which the roles are not fixed but are contested, and individuals can move between the position of sadist and masochist, subject and object, dominator and dominated."

Since then I have enjoyed Enduring Love and enjoyed and been annoyed in equal measures by Atonement. Amsterdam is the most recent of his books that I've read and, despite it being his only Booker winner, is the slightest of them all. Maybe that's what the Booker judges were looking for. Some critics have tried to salvage it by claiming it is comedy or satire, but it lacks the kind of bite that I'd expect from good examples of either genre.

As with many of his novels. This one starts with a death – that of Molly Lane – after a long and lingering illness. Her four lovers are all at the funeral – Vernon and Clive who were long term friends, George with whom they had a more or less amicable relationship and Foreign Secretary Julian, with whom they did not. In fact, there is damn near a fight at the funeral.

Vernon is the editor of a grubby little newspaper, one which is trying to decide if it is going to fully embrace the gutter or try to recover some of its past glories. A golden opportunity is presented to Vernon, not just to define the newspaper but also to score one last punch against Julian, when George gives him some very compromising photos taken by Molly of Julian in drag. Before publishing, he consults Clive – something which starts the unravelling of their friendship. Clive is adamant they are not to be published, as they show how much trust Julian had in Molly – to publish would be to desecrate her memory. Too much hangs on it for Vernon, however.

Clive is not completely pure either. He too has put his work first. When out walking in the Lake District, he sees what proves to be an attack by a serial rapist. Rather than intervening, or calling for help or even reporting it, he simply moves to a quieter place, annoyed at the interruption.

This might have been used as a nice place from which to meditate upon the importance of Art, the need to allow creative endeavours to proceed unchecked by the concern of mere mortals (somewhat like Iris Murdoch’s The Book and the Brotherhood) but that is not McEwan’s focus. Instead, his concern is with what these events do to the friendship. They had been so close that both had sworn if one was terminally ill, the other would help him die peacefully. By now, they are not even talking and have revised the entire history of the relationship, convinced that they were never friends.

Until this point, Amsterdam has not been mentioned save in the title, making me wonder at its significance. It is there that the final actions of the novel are played out. They agree to meet there, ostensibly to patch up their failed friendship, but both has his own secret motive. While there is a nice symmetry to what happens, it struck me as just too tidy, to have them both arrange for the other’s assisted “suicide”. One interesting possibility put forward by a critic is that the whole scenario has been orchestrated by George – which would indeed make for a darker novel.


Blogger natalie biz said...

God, I so agree with "why did this win the Booker?" sentiment. Nearly every other book on the short-list that year would have been a more worthy winner.

10:18 AM  

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