Ian McEwan is, without a doubt, one of the greatest writers of dark fiction today. But his novella "Amsterdam" is something of a misfire, reading more like the sluggishly-filled-out outline for a novel rather than a novel itself. While it has the seeds of genius, his usual introspection and depth is both missing and sorely missed.
Molly Lane is dead, her mind and body wrecked by an unspecified disease. Now her assorted lovers and friends reunite one last time, including Molly's ex-boyfriends Clive and Vernon, respectively a prominent composer and a not-so-respected newspaper editor. Because of Molly, they are friends -- and they enter into a pact because of her death.
But things go awry when Vernon gets his hands on photos of the Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, cross-dressing and photographed by Molly. Eager to bring down Garmony and bring up his readership, Vernon wants to publish the photos in his newspaper; Clive is disgusted by this, yet he allows a rapist and murderer to go free for the sake of his musical inspiration. Which man is worse?
"Amsterdam" is like a city in winter: pretty at a distance but rather empty and cold when you walk through it. In theory it has all the elements needed for a great novel, but it feels vaguely unfinished, as if McEwan was expanding an outline into a full-fledged novel but somehow never finished the job.
The characters are lacking in the complexity found in most of McEwan's other books, where many dimensions can be found. Clive is almost impossible to connect with; Vernon is more understandable, given his waning career. But if these characters aren't really connectable, McEwan uses them to make us look at morality, hypocrisy, and where our bad intentions can lead us.
Aside from the characters, the prose is simple and straightforward: it describes what the characters do, but very little of what they think. As a result, some of the actions -- such as Clive watching a woman being attacked -- seem almost random. But in places, such as Mrs. Garmony's public speech about her husband and Vernon, his brilliance shines forth, and the entire ending is lit up by the irony.
So while an acceptable novel by most standards, it's perhaps the least of McEwan's works thus far. Has its moments of pure brilliance, but in large patches, it's dreary and empty.
on October 22, 2008
I echo the cry of that terrible harridan of the 1980's Wendy's commercials. I enjoyed making my way through this, but by the time I was done I was like the venerable man after Chinese food: full, but hungry and unsatisfied shortly thereafter.
I'm not going to be the guy who drops spoilers in a review, but my word, does anyone else see the echoes of Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana?" Maybe I just read them too closely together and conflated them circumstantially.
At any rate, I'm glad that I borrowed the book, and didn't pay for it... scandalous as it may be to say that in an online bookseller review.
I received this book free for review from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review. Despite the coolness of receiving a free book, I’m absolutely candid about it below because I believe authors and readers will benefit most from honest reviews rather than vacuous 5-star reviews.
The nutshell view on this book is that it is essentially the story of a friendship torn asunder. The narrative is fairly complex and the writing exceptionally literary but it does take a really long time to get to its ‘hook.’ Even when it does so, the hook isn’t terribly strong and takes a fair amount of willpower to carry forward with.
So on the positive side, the book is exceptionally erudite and paints a fine and detailed picture of its protagonists. They are very real and vividly portrayed and one could imagine knowing them in real life. Their intercourse is fairly realistic and they carry on like old friends tend to.
To the negative, the book takes a long time to get find its way to something interesting. The first full third of this short novel sets the stage and I found my mind wandering terribly and I wondered what exactly why I was bothering. Once I found the hook the a-ha moment was brief and only mildly impactful.
In summary, I can’t really find any group of readers to whom I would recommend this book. It wallows in the shallows of mediocrity and is not one that will come to mind unbidden over the coming months. In fact, utterly forgettable I’m afraid.
PS: I hope my review was helpful. If it was not, then please let me know what I left out that you’d want to know. I always aim to improve.
on May 14, 2004
Love Ian McEwan. This is a writer who'll call you names, but will giggle still and kiss you afterwards. His comedy and his portrait of modern life (or modern Britain during and after the Thatcher years) is without equal, and one should thank him for it.
But AMSTERDAM, his most critically-acclaimed work so far, is too obscure, too 'crammed' a book for this reviewer to highly recommend (Not that there is a need for it. This one, afterall, won THE Booker Prize). Here, four brilliantly constructed characters attempt to out-manouvre each other for no given reason (or is it perhaps because of pride? you decide). You will find it entertaining and inspiring to read how McEwan engineered each of his plots to deliver a psychological study (no matter how small the examination is) of his four major characters. You will feel their pain, their bitterness, their loneliness, their heartlessness, yet in a narrative that is straightforward and unsentimental. (His Julian Garmony, a cross-dressing politician of brilliant machiavellian talent, is one character you'll either love or hate. McEwan's account of Garmony's grasp of power simply is wonderful). Reading AMSTERDAM is like experiencing a Toni Morisson novel written by a PBS or an Economist (UK weekly mag) journalist, and this, I know, is not a bad thing.
This is a good introduction to McEwan, and a book highly enjoyable. But, as mentioned briefly above, the ending is quite lukewarm...
on June 28, 2005
Apparently, I am in the minority in liking AMSTERDAM (which would, of course, include those individuals involved in selecting the winner of the Booker prize). It has been a long time since I have taken the time to read a novel straight through-the exception being the excellent and well-crafted BARK OF THE DOGWOOD and the novel LOVELY BONES-----but this story -- of the politics of friendship -- kept me hooked from the opening scene. AMSTERDAM opens at the funeral of Molly Lane, and treks the perverse friendship of two of her former lovers -- Vernon and Clive, a writer and composer, respectively. As the tale unfolds, it becomes evident that the loss of Molly -- their only link and their only real identity -- undoes them. In addition to the plot, with an interesting ethical twist regarding the slippery slope of euthenasia, the poetic prose of the novel and the myriad underlying plots make this book a pleasure to read.
on January 3, 2007
What a galling act, to gift this trite, self indulgent, shallow personal billboard (not to mention dithering, pointless and irrelevant) novel with the Booker.
The shelves of this world are full to bursting with satisfactorily written novels deserving of nothing more than a polite pat on the back for the author's application and determination in achieving publication.
Awarding this novel with the Booker is akin to lauding George Bush for his political acumen.
Stand this novel beside Coetzee's Disgrace and watch it blush.
on November 5, 2011
This is my first review ever on Amazon and I want to be able to express my thoughts on literature better so I figured, why not?
Some reviews have lamented the fact that Amsterdam won the Booker but the Booker has often rewarded mediocre works in order to make up for perceived snubs (Amsterdam for McEwan's Enduring Love), give life-time achievement awards (Jacobson's The Finkler Question) or scathing/sensational works (Adiga's The White Tiger). The most egregious offense was the awarding of the Booker to DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, which if purchased, is nothing more than expensive toilet paper. Unfortunately, I bought this book before I was aware of the inconsistency of the Booker and I should have done more research before buying Amsterdam.
Amsterdam's most redeeming quality is that it passes by quickly and then you can forget about it. Everything about the book seems superficial in terms of description of events and character development. As a result, I never connected with the two main characters (Clive and Vernon) and didn't care what happened to them. To me, this is the major problem with Amsterdam since Clive and Vernon are thoroughly unlikeable individuals (arrogant, conceited, condescending), their one-dimensionality makes it so I have no sympathy for them when things go wrong or even to think "ya, you deserve that".
The plot, once the euthanasia angle comes in during the back half of the book, is extremely implausible. I really don't think people who are supposedly highly-educated and consider themselves brilliant would react the way they did to an argument between life-long friends, especially on Vernon's side. I don't want to spoil the plot for anyone who wants to read the book by giving the context but suffice it to say, I laughed and not in a good way. McEwan could have done much, much more with this topic and I thought he would have based on the product description.
An uncharacteristic misfire for a brilliant author.
on May 2, 2002
I'm going to trash this book, but first I have to say that McEwan writes well line to line, as he explains where people are and what they're doing, and their surroundings. He's a master of efficiency and clarity of prose. Nothing I say below attacks his way of putting information across to the reader. Rather, it's the story he tells that bugs me. In short, it's just plain dumb.
If you like genre fiction, mysteries, suspense, then
you MIGHT like this, but if you're looking for literature
look elsewhere. And really, if you like genre fiction
the masters of the genres will probably satisfy you more
than this foray by an allegedly literary writer into what might be called suspense or mystery fiction.
There is VERY LITTLE character development in this 50,000 word
story (most novels are about 100,000 words; Amsterdam is really
The story is all geared toward plot and feels VERY forced as things come together.
I'm starting to consider award labels (Booker Prize, Nat'l Book Award, Pulitzer, etc.) more as warning flags than anything else, given the low quality of many recent award winners (Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, Michael Cunningham's The Hours, etc.). It's clear to me that in this business who you know and who likes you and who does not, plays a large role in things. Literary quality does not.
Now to give you a synopsis without giving away the whole story.
We have two friends, a newspaper man trying to save his job by boosting the circulation of his paper, and a composer trying to finish a symphony that must be done in time for a millenium celebration.
In the past they had both been the "lover" of a particular woman (maybe I should just avoid books that use the word "lover" seriously and not in jest). She's died, and in going through her things another man, her husband, finds scandalous photos of a particular politician that the newspaper man would love to bring down. Apparently the dead woman and this politician had been friends or more than friends at some time in the past and she took these lurid photos. The husband (widower) phones the newspaperman and offers him the photos.
Publishing these photos would boost the paper's circulation and bring down the politician who, because he is a conservative, is veiwed by all as evil. At least the newspaper man THINKS publishing the photos will ruin the politician. The newspaper man's composer friend disapproves of the plan to publish the photos on ethical grounds, then goes off on a trot to the country to find inspiration to finish his symphony.
While communing with nature the composer spies a man and woman engaged in a tussle. He doesn't know if it's a serious assault or just some lover's quarrel or what, but he really wants to finish his symphony (the deadline is looming), a bird has just whistled in his ear (literally) and inspired him, and he's afraid that if he doesn't act NOW and write down the music the bird has inspired, he'll lose it. Thus, he sits on the horns of a dilemma, help the woman and lose the song in his head and maybe miss his deadline, or run off and jot down the song inspired by the bird and let the woman fend for herself? Of course the right thing to do is clear, and most of us would have no problem deciding what to do, but this guy does.
I'll stop there. It's really silliness from my point of view. It's all based upon coincidence and situation, as a comedy should be, but not as a serious drama should be. I found it ridiculous. Not only that, but BECAUSE the only thing that matters here is plot, you really have no desire to read a lot of the stuff that goes on in between the big plot moments because you realize after a little reading that none of that in between stuff matters. It's filler. What you have hear is an outline for a t.v. movie.
And this is a serious criticism. This "novel" owes more to the history of television than it does to the history of literature. It is built upon Columbo, not upon Jane Austen, James Joyce, Henry James, George Eliot, Proust, Hemingway, or any author you can imagine. Even good genre fiction runs deeper than this.
And yes, I suppose t.v. got its ideas originally from books, but what I'm saying is this novel doesn't plumb through the depths of t.v. to THAT deeper literary source of t.v. drama; instead, it floats lazily in the t.v. cliche's built on top of the original literary sources of t.v. genre fiction.
Okay, that's all.
on April 28, 2002
I have had this book on my tbr shelf for quite some time, and have been looking forward to read it. I had heard so many good things about Ian McEwan, and on top of it this book was a winner of the 1998 Booker Prize.
The book though did not meet any of my expectations. The book had a quite good start. A woman dies, and in her funeral two of her formal lovers meet. And Molly Lane's death makes them look upon their own life and vulnerability in a new way. How can they know how long they will live? How can they know that they will not get such a terribel decease as Molly Lane got? Better to die than take the risk. And they get a pact with each other to help each other to end their life if something happend.
This could have been a valuable book in the euthanasy debate, but instead the book is so flat, and McEwan manage to give no life to the carachters.
Also the name Amsterdam confuses me. It might have something to do with the liberal laws on euthanasy in the Netherlands. But we have to read to the very last pages of the book before Amsterdam gets any part at all.
The somewhat good and interesting part of the book, that made me give two instead of just one start, is the way Ian McEwan writes only half of the story, and the rest is up to the reader's imagination. You are bond to make up some of the story yourself, and a few places this works out.
Britt Arnhild Lindland
on April 21, 2002
I've become a real fan of Ian McEwan this past year, and though I'm not completely through his catalog, I'm very impressed with his ability to have great ideas within a tight story. This may be his tightest story ... it moves very quickly, and the book can be finished in 3 to 4 hours.
The main characters, a composer and a newspaper editor, become embroiled in a political scandal that relates to the affair each has had with a recently deceased woman. Their friendship becomes strained, and the miscommunication that develops drives the story. The story moves quickly, and I disagree with those who dislike the ending -- it does work, at least for me.
I also think this book works as a good introduction to McEwan. Its spare style is indicative of his work. When you've finished this book, move on to Atonement or Enduring Love: both are excellent books.
A few general words about Ian McEwan. He pays great attention to the word choice in each sentence, but unlike some other post modern types, he has a real story with a real conflict. Among modern writers, there seems to be some dislike of plotting, but McEwan shows that you can write about interesting ideas and have a good story as well.