Read in 1999 Vintage edition
The important thing to remember about this novel, winner of the 1998 Booker prize, is that it is pre-Atonement, pre-On Chesil Beach, even pre-Saturday. In other words it is not the work of a mature writer at the height of his powers – which I know is not much of an excuse, but it was the best I could come up with. In fact after a few hours of puzzlement – what the heck was he thinking of? – I think I came to understand what McEwan was trying to do here, and I was willing to forgive him.
The plot is flimsy. Molly Lane has died in her forties of an unspecified dementia, (false note struck straight away – everyone would have wanted to know what her illness was, and would have talked about it) and her past lovers assemble to mourn her. The cast includes:
· George, her present husband, who maliciously prevented people from visiting her, and used her illness as a means of imposing the control on her he was never able to exercise when she was well.
· Vernon, editor of a mildly left wing broadsheet, who is struggling to take it down market, running stories about conjoined twins instead of chess tournaments
· Clive, a composer who has been commissioned to write a millennial symphony (we are in the late 1990s). Clive is revealed as a casual plagiarist;
· Garmody, the Foreign Secretary, who has a range of unpleasant right-wing views. He is a Portillo-like figure (that is the nasty Portillo of the mid 1990’s not the avuncular figure he has become).
Clive and Vernon, long standing friends, casually make a pact to kill one another should either of them become ill in the way Molly did. George finds pictures of Garmody amongst Molly’s possessions that show him cross-dressing. He sells them to Vernon, who uses them to boost circulation, but falls out with Clive as a result. Meanwhile Clive, on a walking break in the Lake District, sees a woman being attacked, but does not intervene because he wants to work on his composition.
Vernon is sacked, Clive can’t finish his composition, and in a rage they decide to kill one another, which they do while in Amsterdam, using the country’s relaxed laws on euthanasia. The front cover of this edition shows two gentlemen in frock coats and top hats duelling in a wood or forest, with one or two others watching on as seconds, a not so subtle reference to this mutual destruction.
Each character tells their section of the story in the first person, so we don’t see them in their full awfulness immediately – they have little or no insight into their own behaviour. For example when Clive sees the woman attacked he views the incident as little more than a domestic argument, when to the reader it is chillingly, obviously, more than that: “She made a sudden pleading whimpering sound, and Clive knew exactly what he had to do.” (88) He walks away.
McEwan assembles a cast of grotesques, and hurries to dole out suitable outcomes to them all. The implausibility of the ending really needs no elaboration from me, and he came in for a huge amount of criticism – the worst of which was to compare it to the kind of contrivance used by Jeffrey Archer. To a point this is justified – the ending is ridiculous and unbelievable. But I have a theory as to what McEwan was aiming for. It is a mistake to read this as social realism, a psychological study, or a thriller. This was intended as social satire, however clumsily it is executed. In fact the novel I am most strongly reminded of is Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved Ones, which is deliciously dark, and ends, like this, with sudden death. But while Waugh carries it off, McEwan undoubtedly doesn’t. Principally this is due to simple care with the various elements of the plot. Satire is such a difficult art that a near miss – as I believe Amsterdam is – is nevertheless a profound miss. If evidence of this were needed, I think it is significant that while the characters and events of Waugh’s 1930s novel have stayed clearly with me for more than 20 years, I could remember nothing of this novel from a 1999 reading until I read the book this week. McEwan’s themes – the intrusions of the press, injunctions, euthanasia, etc – are still very relevant, so I was surprised at how dated the novel felt.