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…
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.