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Flyspecking Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (With Amendment by My Wife)

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I’m an admirer of Ian McEwan because he is such a great storyteller. He knows story structure better than anyone. His books aren’t long. They suck you in, set a dark mood, give you a few quickly-sketched intriguing characters, take you for a ride, and then wrap everything up. He has tone and wit.

That said, I just finished Amsterdam and found it pointless.

The book tells a compelling story about old friends, former rivals for the affection of a lively woman who has just died. The story purports to be a study of privileged London life, chiefly a newspaper called Judge, with portraits of a composer working on a masterpiece, a foreign minister and a newspaper boss, but in the end this whole arrangement drains away into a macabre horror story that while resolving its tensions elegantly is too perfect and simple.

Amsterdam tells you only one thing about society really, describes the life of the composer Clive Linley as he’s working on a symphony. McEwan knows the creative life well, he understands the usefulness to Linley of alcohol, privilege, solitude, and the outdoors. Flaubert said that you have to be bourgeois to be an artist, and McEwan seems to share that belief.

The problem is that the book also claims to describe newspapering and government. And almost every word about public life rings false. For instance, the plot turns on photographs of the foreign minister wearing women’s clothes, taken by his late lover, that have fallen into the hands of the Judge editor. According to Amsterdam, this is how the scandal develops:: the newspaper execs agonize about whether to publish the pictures; the editorial staff hold huge meetings with staff to debate it, bitterly dividing the staff; the paper announces what it’s going to do before publishing the photos; a national discussion in several newspapers ensues about the Judge’s decision and privacy rights without one photograph being printed. At last, the foreign minister’s wife herself reveals the photographs at a press conference, scooping Judge, saying she has always tolerated her husband’s fondness for cross-dressing, and labeling the editor a sanctimonous moral “flea.” This cry is then taken up by the other papers, and the Judge board cans the editor as an embarrassment. Meanwhile, the photos having run, it is said that they show the foreign minister to be unworthy of prime ministership because of his secret life and bad judgment.

Every word of that scenario is false, except the last line. Almost any newspaper would judge it a legitimate public interest to know that a man aspiring to be prime minister was cross-dressing and getting photographed by his lover. Full stop. The paper would not agonize or put it up for a vote, it would either run the pix or not. It would not regard the foreign minister’s privacy as sacrosanct, not in this instance. Only a few people would be told about the photos ahead of time, because any fool in the business would anticipate the “surprise” that occurs in the novel, someone else would go public first. The paper would only call the foreign minister at the last second. If a national discussion about privacy took place, it would begin after the photos ran, not before.

McEwan is so completely wrong about this that I feel he has wasted my time, for the sake of engaging me with a clever story. At least with Cement Garden and Enduring Love he seemed to know his material, they were more about the human heart.

My wife disagrees with me. She doesn’t go fly-specking a writer’s plausibility, she is grateful for the story. “When someone says, Here comes a giant white rabbit, wearing a watch, I think it’s a giant bunny.” She’s a better reader than I am.

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