‘Amsterdam’ by Ian McEwan

amsterdam

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 198 pages; 1998.

Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam could easily have been included in my recent 10 books about journalists post. That’s because the lead character is a newspaper editor, who tries to revive a flagging career and a dive in circulation figures by publishing a series of photographs that could bring down a politician.

The novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1998, is a searing tongue-in-cheek account of journalistic ethics before the internet took over. But it’s also a terrific comedy about middle-aged men who will do almost anything to kick-start, or cling onto, stalled careers.

Though the humour is subtle, I tittered my way through it. Occasionally it’s what the characters say that elicits a chuckle, but mostly it’s the clever connections and set-ups that McEwan puts into play that deliver the laughs. It’s like a game of chess — nothing is immediately obvious, but then a character makes a move and you see what he’s up to or how it might play out before it actually does, which makes it such a fun read.

A trio of men

The story revolves around three men — the aforementioned newspaper editor, a composer and an MP — who are linked by one thing: they are ex-lovers of Molly, a photographer dead at the age of 46 from an unspecified illness. The trio are friends or enemies, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

It’s a rather complicated plot, but I’ll try to summarise it as best I can without giving anything away. Essentially, it goes something like this: Vernon Halliday, editor of The Judge, an upmarket newspaper, is handed a story that could rescue the paper’s dying circulation figures. Molly apparently took a series of photographs of a leading politician, the foreign secretary Julian Garmony, striking poses as a cross-dresser. The photos were found by composer Clive Linley.

Vernon wants to publish them, not only to boost the paper’s circulation but also to scupper Garmony’s chances of ever being elected as prime minister. Clive doesn’t approve: he thinks publishing them would betray Molly. Yet when Vernon ignores the composer’s concerns, he finds the outcome isn’t quite what he expected…

Dual storyline

There’s a second story line involving Clive, who is also struggling with his career. He’s having a hard time composing a new symphony for the new millennium — he’s missed two deadlines already — so he takes himself on a week’s holiday to the Lake District hoping to blow off the cobwebs, so to speak. While out walking he witnesses an argument between a man and a woman but at the very moment he should have interjected, he can hear a melody in his head that he doesn’t want to lose. He scuttles away to write it down before he forgets it, only to find out much later, upon his return to London, that the argument he witnessed was just the beginning of what turned out to be a rather brutal rape.

Vernon believes Clive has a moral obligation to tell the police what he saw. He refuses — again with unforeseen results.

I can’t say anything about the ending, which concludes in Amsterdam (hence the title) and brings both storylines together in a rather satisfying if completely bonkers and certainly not realistic way. I often find that with McEwan’s novels, though — his endings are strange and occasionally rushed, but I’m not sure whether this is typical of his style or just the handful of books I’ve read.

All up, Amsterdam is quite a fun read about a trio of pompous men in high-flying careers acting like they’re juveniles. It’s ingeniously plotted story with a suitably over-the-top ending that’s completely preposterous but which is not entirely out of keeping with the rest of the book. It’s a novel about journalism, politics and music, but it also explores betrayal, loyalty, ambition — and death.

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14 thoughts on “‘Amsterdam’ by Ian McEwan

  1. It’s nice to see someone else who enjoyed this. I read it years ago and loved it but everyone else seems to hate it. It’s that long since I read it mind, I can’t recall exactly what I enjoyed about it!

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    • I’ve ever looked at any reviews of it, so wasn’t aware of people’s hatred for this book. Was it because it won the Booker, do you think? I thought it was great fun — and if you approach it as a farce then it’s a hugely enjoyable read, but if you’re expecting something highbrow and literary (as the Booker was regarded at that time) then perhaps you’d be disappointed.

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  2. I read Amsterdam some years ago and my memory is hazy (I should really take notes when I read). I do remember enjoying it and I also recall that the ending was, in your words, “bonkers” but clever. I have mixed experiences with McEwan, having enjoyed both Amsterdam and Atonement, but really disliked Enduring Love and Saturday. I thought On Chesil Beach was alright, but nothing terribly exciting. I get the feeling, when I read his books, that he is constantly trying to be too clever for my own good and that his books are more of an exercise in structure, rather than a good story.

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    • I have to admit to having mixed responses too… I remember being very very angry at Atonement because the last part is just an author playing games with his readers.

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    • I too have mixed experiences with McEwan. Loved On Chesil Beach, laughed out loud several times reading Solar but didn’t think it was great. Started Atonement and Saturday but just couldn’t finish them. I might give Amsterdam a go though – love reading about journalists and their world.

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      • Funnily enough I loved Saturday but the ending was stupid. Ditto for Atonement. Liked Chesil Beach but thought it over-rated (it got SO MUCH attention at the time of publication) but havent tried Solar: i have it in my TBR though.

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  3. It is a long time since i read this book but it is the only one of his ( im a big fan) that i really didnt enjoy . I probably should reread it just to see if i would still have the response ….dont remember much about it but after reading your review i wondered whether it was the improbabilty of it that i took against .

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    • It’s completely improbable, ridiculously so, but I didn’t mind the slide into out-and-out farce because I’d gotten so many laughs out of all that went before, but I could understand why some people might actually want to throw the book against the wall 😉

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  4. I loved it. This is my favourite bit:
    The following day the editor presided over a subdued meeting with his senior staff. …
    ‘It’s time we ran more regular columns. They’re cheap, and everyone else is doing them. You know, we hire someone of low to medium intelligence, possibly female, to write about, well, nothing much. You’ve seen the sort of thing. Goes to a party and can’t remember someone’s name. Twelve hundred words.’
    ‘Sort of navel gazing,’ Jeremy Ball suggested.
    ‘Not quite. Gazing is too intellectual. More like navel chat.’
    ‘Can’t work her video recorder. Is my bum too big?’ Lettice supplied helpfully.
    ‘That’s good. Keep ‘em coming.’ The editor wiggled and paddled his fingers in the air to draw out their ideas.
    ‘Er, buying a guinea pig.’
    ‘His hangover.’
    ‘Her first grey pubic hair.’
    ‘Always gets the supermarket trolley with the wobbly wheel.’
    ‘Excellent. I like it. Harvey? Grant?’
    ‘Um, always losing biros. Where do they go?’
    ‘’Ehm, canna keep his tongue out of the wee hole in his tooth.’
    ‘Brilliant’, Frank said. ‘Thank you everyone. We’ll continue this tomorrow.(pp 129-130).

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    • Oh, that’s wonderful! 🙂 I had a whole bunch of quotes I wanted to include but ended up editing them out because I began to think I was being obsessive and they only really appealed to me based on my journalistic background… I liked the one about the “grammarians” ruling the roost (which never EVER happens, I have to say, particularly in this day and age when what we do is so seriously devalued most are made redundant and hardly any newbies are even properly trained) and there’s a whole discussion about a sub cocking up the environment leader by using the word “hopefully” at the start of a sentence!

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  5. This has been on my TBR list for forever. I don’t even know what originally prompted me to add it anymore so I’m glad to have read this to remind me. I’ve only read Atonement and I had a hard time with it so I’m not sure why I want to read any more of his work really. I guess I want to give him another chance!

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