December 24, 2009
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Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan
7/10, a technically competent story that falls short of actual meaning
After seeing “Atonement“, I became curious about Ian McEwan’s stories. I found “Amsterdam,” recommended in various places as a “dark comedy tour de force,” or variations thereon, and I thought it’d be worth a read.
Certainly, McEwan creates memorable characters and extraordinary situations. The setup for “Amsterdam,” loosely, is two friends reminiscing over affairs with a woman at her funeral, and mutually despising a politician with whom she was most recently taking up. The friends are a newspaper editor and a composer, and their lives become further disrupted when some photos of the politician surface that might be embarrassing. Over the seemingly minor question of whether the editor has a moral obligation to publish the photos, the two friends have a falling-out, which leads to further extraordinary situations and a fairly unbelievable ending.
It might be called “dark humor”; I find that a lot of people who attempt dark humor end up sliding too far to the “dark” and not including enough “humor.” That’s the case here, where a macabre and grotesque situation is supposed to be funny simply because it exists. There isn’t enough time given to the setup of the two men and their friendships for us to appreciate the quick twists and turns of the story, and the extremes to which they go seem incongruous with the rest of the world they inhabit. Without giving too much away, the hinge of the whole moral dilemma seems weak, but perhaps that’s just my unfamiliarity with British customs and traditions as regards their politicians. Still, in a country that outdoes the U.S.A. for tabloids, I find it hard to believe that there would be that much furor over embarrassing photos.
I do have a thing about endings, and the head-shaking nature of this one rather ruined the experience for me. It’s possible that McEwan’s other books are more worthwhile, but I wouldn’t recommend this one.