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Post  eddie Wed Dec 07, 2011 4:39 am

Booker club: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Characters without personality, comedy without mirth – how McEwan's worst novel won the Booker is a deep mystery

Sam Jordison, Tuesday 6 December 2011 10.34 GMT

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Ian McEwan celebrates his victory at the 1998 Booker prize. Photograph: Toby Melville/PA

Because Booker prize deliberations go on behind closed doors, we'll never really know what led the judging panel to Ian McEwan's Amsterdam. Naturally, that makes it all the more tempting and intriguing to speculate. What discussions were there? What compromises were made? Who stuck the knife into poor old Beryl Bainbridge? Were there displays of taste and erudition from Douglas Hurd and Nigella Lawson? How was the case made for Amsterdam? Were there compromises, or just a fuzzy consensus? Did anyone dissent? Did anyone actually try to suggest that this isn't a very good book?

Ian McEwan Amsterdam
by Ian McEwan

On the latter question, we must assume that the answer was "no" – or that the person making the case against the book was roundly ignored. As I shall now attempt to show, a point-by-point debunk of the novel can be carried out in around five minutes – even less time than it takes to read the thing.

1) It's preposterous.

If you're squeamish about spoilers, look away now, because the simplest way of demonstrating Amsterdam's deficiencies is to lay out its story and denouement. Things are set in motion when Vernon and Clive, two old friends, agree that, should one of them enter into the kind of mental decline they have just witnessed in their former lover, Molly, the other will assist in his euthanasia. The plot thickens when the two friends argue over two questions of morality. The first question concerns newspaper editor Vernon's decision to publish a series of pictures the now-dead Molly took of the current foreign secretary in drag. The second, Vernon's failure to tell the police about the fact he witnessed an attempted rape while he was walking in the Lake District, because he was too engrossed in writing a symphony for the new millennium. The plot then curdles when Clive discovers he is about to lose his faculties and the two agree to meet in Amsterdam, but hate each other so much they murder each other with champagne laced with the poison they have procured from a euthanasia program.

I'm guessing that I don't have to say much more than that.

2) It farts and belches.

While the broad outline above speaks for itself, it's worth also noting that there are many other, smaller, instances of absurdity in the novel – upon which the plot is completely reliant. For instance, Vernon comes a cropper because he holds off publishing the above-mentioned series of pictures for several weeks while steadily building interest about them in his paper. Has a newspaper ever said "We have some mind-blowing pictures. So, watch out! We're going to print them in two weeks' time"? Am I alone in finding that ridiculous?

Even if I'm wrong on that score, there are plenty of other complaints to make about a plot that moves forward with all the subtlety and grace of an England rugby scrum. There is bus-heavy foreshadowing of the euthanasia strand, for instance – an arrangement that points to doom with flashing red arrows. There are also characters dumped into strategic positions throughout the book – and who have no life beyond their role in the plot. On page 105, we meet an employee at Vernon's paper called Frank Dibben and are immediately told he is known as Cassius "for his lean and hungry look". Dibben whispers blandishments to Vernon, pretends to be on his side and with crushing inevitability is sitting in his editorial chair by page 130. He is there simply to serve a plot twist – although twist is perhaps the wrong word for such an unsurprising outcome.

3) The characters have no character.

Dibben is not really a concern when it comes to characterisation. McEwan makes no attempt to fill him in – but why would he when he comes and goes so quickly? The trouble is that everyone else is equally spectral. There is nothing to grasp in any of them. McEwan himself describes Vernon as a "a man without edges … a man who did not fully exist" and all that needs to be said is he does little to disabuse us of the notion. Clive, meanwhile, is offered to us simply as a composer with a mind dedicated only to the perfection of his art – to the extent that he can witness a rape and do nothing about it, as he'd rather be jotting down musical notes.

All of that would be fine, if rather unsatisfying, if McEwan didn't also want to suggest that they have a complicated emotional life. It's bewildering to see these ciphers suddenly bursting into emotional arguments with each other, bellowing about principles and hanging up the phone with soap-operatic violence. It's also strange to see such empty vessels pouring out for the lost Molly and gorging on revenge. McEwan expects them to eat when they have no stomachs.

4) There is nightmarish writing.

I would hesitate to say that McEwan's prose is ever truly bad. Sentence by sentence he is a fine craftsman. Even in a book as awful as Amsterdam there are moments of pleasure, such as the following description of a crowd at a funeral:

"So many faces Clive had not seen by daylight, and looking terrible, like cadavers jerked upright to welcome the newly dead. Invigorated by this jolt of misanthropy, he moved sleekly through the din, ignored his name when it was called, withdrew his elbow when it was plucked and kept on going towards where George stood talking to two women and a shrivelled old cove with a fedora and stick."

There's a beguiling unforced rhythm to the prose and it isn't just the fact that this book is so slight that makes it easy to finish in one brief sitting. But even so … As well as all those histrionic arguments, there are many embarrassing sequences. Vernon's lost editorship, for instance, is revealed in a one page chapter where McEwan suddenly starts talking about "the editor" where previously he has named Vernon, yet still expects the last sentence where "the editor" is replaced by "Frank" to come as a surprise. Worse still is Clive's death, supposedly the climax of the book, which is rendered ridiculous when it is described from within a dream-sequence in which Clive starts talking to the long-dead Molly. And even worse than that is the fact that this dreadful chapter is followed by one in which Vernon does the exact same thing.

5) It isn't funny.

The slightness of characterisation, the over-the-top prose, the obtrusiveness of the plotting and the idiocy of the premise might be more easy to forgive as sacrifices made in the service of comedy. Ian McEwan himself suggested in a fascinating Paris Review interview that the book has a "rather improbable comic plot" and grew out of a "long-running joke". The trouble is, that there are no laughs. The sly winking tone is irritating rather than amusing, the satire is too daft ever to hit home, and it's too easy to see the jokes coming.

The only really laughable thing is the fact that Amsterdam won the Booker Prize when it so clearly didn't deserve it, but that too leaves a sour taste. In his Paris Review interview McEwan noted: "[Amsterdam's] (as opposed to my) misfortune was to win the Booker Prize, at which point some people began to dismiss it." That's true to an extent, but I'd say it's been his misfortune too. There's an argument that the attention he received from Amsterdam paved the way for Atonement's well-deserved conquest of the world a short while later, but it's hard not to feel the award has done McEwan's reputation lasting damage. The fact that it won the Booker will make many people (and more and more of them in the future) assume that Amsterdam must be McEwan's best work, when it is far from it. And if Amsterdam were the only book of his I'd read, I'd never read want to read another – and so miss out on one of our best contemporary novelists. It's small wonder that he has become the target of so much online sniping – there must be thousands of people out there who've read only this one McEwan novel, seen it garlanded with awards, and assumed that he and the British literary establishment are locked in a conspiracy to feed us trash. It is a sad moment in the illustrious histories of the novelist and of the Booker prize.
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Post  eddie Mon Mar 26, 2012 10:18 pm

Ian McEwan: misery of attack on Iran would be beyond belief

Author says regime is 'looking very wobbly,' but that an attack would reunite the country behind its leaders

Lisa Allardice, Sunday 25 March 2012 16.56 BST

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Ian McEwan in conversation with Ian Katz at the Guardian Open Weekend. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris

Ian McEwan, the writer whose 2005 novel Saturday was widely interpreted as making the case for military intervention in Iraq, said on Sunday any attack on Iran with the aim of destroying its nuclear capability would end in disaster.

Speaking at the Guardian's Open Weekend festival, McEwan said: "I belong to that very large cohort who think it would be absolutely disastrous to attack Iran ... I think the mischief and misery and unintended consequences of an attack on Iran would be beyond belief."

McEwan's Saturday is set on 15 February 2003, the day of a huge anti-war demonstration in London. He said the debate over intervention in Iran mirrored the arguments over Iraq in 2003, but said that readers were wrong to attribute to him the pro-war views of Saturday's neurosurgeon hero, Henry Perowne.

In fact, McEwan said, his views on Iraq were a combination of Perowne's and those of his anti-war daughter, Daisy. Although he sympathised initially with arguments that Saddam Hussein had to be removed from power, he became "deeply convinced" that the Bush administration was not capable of running the country following a conflict.

As the invasion loomed, McEwan said he spent a "white night of complete sleeplessness" hatching a plan to personally persuade Tony Blair to move 10,000 British troops from Kuwait to Afghanistan. He planned to ask his publisher, Gail Rebuck, to set up a meeting with the prime minister through her husband, Blair's pollster Phillip Gould, but thought better of it in the morning.

McEwan said the Iranian regime was now "looking very wobbly" with "real splits between Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader Khamenei" – but any attack on the country would "bind the country back together behind the theocracy".

He also rejected Israeli claims that if military action were not taken against the Iranian nuclear programme within months, Tehran's weapons capability would be secreted away underground in facilities where it could no longer be knocked out.

"I wish that Israel had never embarked on [its own nuclear weapons programme] because it was inevitable that one or other of the powers in the region would follow … [but] There is a massive feeling of resentment against the [Iranian] regime, within the population and it's quite a sophisticated population, to drive them to the other side would be a disaster.

During the interview, with the Guardian's deputy editor, Ian Katz, the novelist also said:

• The British education system is limiting children in forcing them to choose between humanities or scientific studies at an early age. He said the American GRE test for postgraduate entrants produced more rounded students.

• When he was introduced to Tony Blair at a Tate Modern function, "the prime minister got hold of my hand in that intense way politicians have, not letting it go, and said: 'I'm a great admirer of your work. We have a couple of your pictures hanging in Downing Street.'" He included the anecdote in Saturday.

• His son had to study his novel Enduring Love for A-level. McEwan had given him "some key points" but he still got a low mark – "I think quite wrongly. His tutor thought the stalker carried the authorial moral centre. Whereas I thought he was a complete madman."

McEwan also revealed that he wrote notes for his novels initially in longhand, in ringbound green notebooks, working on a table he built himself in the 90s. "Black ink always. Pressing medium hard," he joked.
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