Thursday, February 17, 2022

Book 323: Amsterdam


“As far as the welfare of every other living form on earth was concerned, the human project was not just a failure, it was a mistake from the very beginning.”

Dates read: June 25-27, 2019

Rating: 6/10

Lists: Booker Prize, The New York Times best-seller

Few things are more satisfying than boiling hot self-righteousness. If there's a drug that gives you that feeling of someone else being not just incorrect, but morally wrong, and being about to shove it in their face that you're a better person than they are, please no one tell me. I will become an addict. Of course, we all know that it is almost inevitably followed by realizing that you are not quite in fact as heroic as you felt, nor is the other person the literal spawn of Satan. But it's a heady rush while it lasts.

Even long-standing friendships aren't immune from misunderstanding and resentments. In Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, two old friends meet at the funeral of a woman they each had loved once. But it isn't the free-spirited Molly, now gone after a brief but terrible bout of dementia, that drives apart Vernon, the editor of a struggling London newspaper, and Clive, a respected composer. They've long since come to terms with that part of their lives. Neither of them can much understand what she ever saw in another one of her former lovers, who also attends the funeral: Julian, a conservative politician whose policy stances would seem to be anathema to Molly's guiding principles of love and acceptance. Nor can they understand why she married George, who seemed bent on controlling her and molding her into conventional respectability. Like many friends, Vernon and Clive have gone through cycles of being more or less close over the years, and the funeral pushes them back into each other's orbit. Spooked by the circumstances of Molly's death, each promises that if the other were to be in a similar state of decline, they would help the end come quicker.

Not long afterwards, both men find themselves in a position to have to make a moral choice. Vernon is given photographs that Molly took of Julian during their that his support base would find shocking. These photos would solidify Vernon's position at the paper by boosting circulation and catapult him into the spotlight after a lifetime of toiling away in relative obscurity. Clive has received a prestigious government commission to compose a piece to celebrate the millennium, and struggles for inspiration until, when taking a hike while out of town, he sees a man attack a woman on the trail. Finding himself suddenly able to see where he wants his symphony to go, he ignores the situation and doesn't report what he saw to the police. Clive is aghast that Vernon would even consider publishing the photos of someone else's private, intimate moments. Vernon is insistent that Clive report what he saw and face responsibility for his failure to intervene on behalf of the woman and keeping what he witnessed from law enforcement. The two are bitterly estranged.

This book is so short as to practically be a novella. That doesn't limit the impact of McEwan's satire, though. If you have ever known a pompous middle-aged man, Vernon and Clive are pitch-perfect. Both ruminate on the clarity of the situation facing the other, while running themselves ragged in the mental gymnastics required to justify their own choices. Each can only see the ways in which they themselves have been good, devoted friends, while the other has taken advantage of their generosity. But that's kind of one of the issues: character. While obviously something this brief and with this perspective isn't out for a deep character study, Vernon and Clive are basically the same person. And George, who shows up to create havoc throughout, seems more like a plot device than a human. I never found anyone compelling enough to really care about how it would end up.

How it ends up is a little too tidy and convenient, for that matter. And the pacing is drags and feels bloated (despite its brevity) in places, but the conclusion feels rushed. It's not without its clever moments and witty turns of phrase, but it really feels like an excellent short story concept that got padded into a decent-but-unspectacular short novel. It's worth a try (the upside of having such a low page count is that even if it doesn't work, it shouldn't take long to finish), but there are sharper, funnier satires out there. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Eyre Affair

Two years ago, I was reading: The Year of Reading Dangerously

Three years ago, I was reading: Daisy Jones & The Six

Four years ago, I was reading: My Name is Venus Black

Five years ago, I was reading: Nefertiti

Six years ago, I was reading: The Namesake

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