I noticed that Ian McEwan’s most recent book, the critically well received Solar, didn’t make the long list for the Mann Booker Prize this year. This is a little surprising, as his earlier books Atonement and Saturday both reached the short list, and Amsterdam won the prize in 1998. There’s also a devastating attack on McEwan’s work in a new book by the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici. He says that McEwan’s books (and those of other writers such as Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis) left him ‘feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world’. With this in mind, I decided to take another look at the prize winner, Amsterdam.
Two old friends, Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday, meet at the funeral of Molly Lane; both had at one time been her lover. They are now eminent men; Clive is Britain’s most successful modern composer; Vernon is editor of a quality newspaper. Molly’s sudden decline into dementia and death frightens them, and they make a pact to assist each other to do away with themselves if something similar were to happen to them. Then Clive gets on with trying to complete his Millennium Symphony, and Vernon gets on with trying to improve the declining circulation of his paper. But both find themselves having to make difficult moral decisions, and each thinks the other has made the wrong one. Then their pact comes back to haunt them.
There is no question that the quality of the writing is high – clear, direct and simple. But in McEwan’s own assessment, it is the plot that is the dominant factor and thus what the book should be judged on. He uses the metaphor of a building: ‘I think of novels in architectural terms’ he says. ‘You have to enter at the gate, and this gate must be constructed in such a way that the reader has immediate confidence in the strength of the building’. The reader certainly sees all the scaffolding and knows what is being built. Clive’s situation is balanced exactly with Vernon’s; first one feels low, then the other, then each sees he can attain what he desires, but each has to make a decision about the morality of their means of achieving it. First one disapproves of those means, then the other. And having risen, both fall.
McEwan clearly liked writing the story; ‘I wrote in a state of glee’ he says. This wicked glee comes through in the way he presents the moral dilemmas, the falling out of the friends and the crazy denouement. There are some straightforwardly funny moments, but mostly it is black humour. There are hints about the way the story will end throughout, and these come back to the reader with grim irony at the end.
But in so carefully constructing the plot, has the author demeaned his characters by making all their choices for them? I think this is the ‘terrible constriction’ that worries Josipovici. This sense of inevitability arises from the very ‘architectural’ nature of the story. Clive and Vernon are pawns in a game whose outcome is already decided. If everything has to balance, if for every rise there has to be a fall, then Clive and Vernon are not given a real choice in the moral dilemmas they are faced with. Thus the irony doesn’t grow out of the story; it is the very condition McEwan imposes from the start. It’s clever, but cynical, and I can see what Josipovici is getting at.
Here is the article that publicised his comments.
Naturally other critics haven’t agreed, and suggest he is being controversial to sell his book, to which the comments about McEwan et al are only a footnote. See what you think.