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Review: Amsterdam, Ian McEwan

When Molly Lane dies, two of her friends meet outside a crematorium to express both their remorse and their view of Molly’s last days.  Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday are a pair of extremely successful men who at one point or another had an affair with Molly.  Molly died in what they consider a horrible way; she just started to lose it suddenly, became ill, and required her long-suffering husband to nurse her.  Clive, the most famous composer of his age, and Vernon, editor of a top newspaper, make a pact after Molly’s death that rebounds against them in a way they’d never expected.

On the back cover, this is described as “a sharp contemporary morality tale, cleverly disguised as a comic novel”, and I can’t say it better than that.  The comedy to me appears to come from how ridiculous these men are, how they are so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t hear and don’t care about the outside world at all.  By the end of the novel, they have each truly become like Molly, lost to the world without realizing what has happened to them.  They’ve been overtaken by an illness, and that illness is, according to Ian McEwan, the ills of public society and the selfishness that it takes to ignore the needs and wellbeing of fellow humans while taking care of number one.  The disturbing thing is that neither of them realize it; what they’re doing is so normal to them that they don’t understand what’s wrong.  They think they’re adding to society when really they’re just adding to the problem.

Anyway, in that way, this novel is so deep in so few pages that it’s hard to say whether or not I liked it.  This is one of those books that I want a class on.  There’s a lot here to pick at and just writing that paragraph above has helped me clarify it in my mind.  I think I could write a paper on it.  It’s less than two hundred pages long, so it didn’t take me very long to read, but it packs in so much thought-provoking material in with the ridiculousness of the situation.  The worst part is that, when dissected, the behavior of neither of the characters is ridiculous.  They’re doing what has been done countless times before and that is eerie and worrying, especially given the extreme dislike I felt for both of them by the end of the novel. Really the problem with the novel is that it isn’t a very good story.  The story and the characters exist only to prove McEwan’s point, which is a strong one, but it doesn’t work very well at a surface level.

In conclusion, there is a very good reason that Amsterdam won the Booker Prize.  It’s a truly haunting commentary on society that still manages to be slightly ridiculous enough to make it interesting.  I haven’t even touched on all the issues here, but I can tell I’m going to continue thinking about this for some time to come.  It isn’t as good as a book as Atonement is, in my humble opinion, particularly because it is shallow in everything but its overall meaning.  I still think it’s worth a read.

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