McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ Redux

I went, I listened to differing opinions, I'm still unimpressed by Amsterdam.

Hard to believe this is the same McEwan from Atonement, The Cement Garden and Enduring Love, but others were able to see the ending I despised as an appropriate bit of black humor. Such humor sneaks by me sometimes. Occasionally, reviews will discuss how darkly humorous a book is, and to me it's just plain crap and not funny at all. I always wonder what those reviewers were smoking, or how much they were being paid.

I thought the ending of Amsterdam was contrived, and written as though he was in a hurry to wrap things up. Most of the librarians agreed with me. There were only a couple hold outs. Those we beat about the head with bookmarks until they saw the light.

And it won the Booker? Ah well. Maybe it was to balance out for another year he should have won but didn't. It's like an umpire in baseball who calls a ball a strike, then when the other team comes up he does the same, to even things out for his former bad call. And both times he's booed, poor chap, but at least the playing field is then evened.

But here are a few quotes I did like:

"He had swallowed the hemlock, and there'd be no more tormenting fantasies now. This thought too was comfort, so that long before the chemicals had reached his brain, he had drawn his knees toward his chest and was released."

"…it seemed to Vernon that he was infinitely diluted; he was simply the sum of all the people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all. When he reached, in solitude, for a thought, there was no one there to think it."

"In the semidarkness, during the seconds it took George to fumble for the light switch, Vernon experienced for the first time the proper impact of Molly's death-the plain fact of her absence. The recognition was brought on by familiar smells that he had already started to forget-her perfume, her cigarettes, the dried flowers she kept in the bedroom, coffee beans, the bakery warmth of laundered clothes … until now he had never really missed her in his heart, or felt the insult of knowing he would never see or hear her again."

See? Beautiful writing. It was just a crap ending. And did I mention the ending was stupid?

I'll get beyond it, but it'll take me a while. Actually, having gotten a nice armload of really tasty review books in the mail today, I'm already over it. At least there'll always be Atonement, The Cement Garden, Enduring Love, and everything else McEwan has written. I just hope he doesn't let me down again… I'd hate to have to beat him around the head with bookmarks. All in the service of literature, though.

6 thoughts on “McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ Redux

  1. I couldn’t call to mind any of the specifics at this point, but I do remember having the same Huh? feeling at the end of Amsterdam. However, as you point out, the writing is well worth the trip along the way. I have read that the Booker award for Amsterdam was sort of a consolation prize for not winning other years. Still, there are pearls within Amsterdam that make it well worth reading, I think.


  2. Amssterdam is a novel I have on my list to re-read this summer, because I want to see how he treats moments of musical inspiration for a project of my own. But your comments about the beautiful writing and wonderful moments put me in mind of the book I’ve just finished reading, A.S. Byatt’s The Childen’s Hour.
    I read its 600+ pages in a few days which must say something about the force of its narrative, but I also was frustrated because so many, many good things were buried under summaries of the events of the day (the period is 1895 to the end of World War I) artistic theories and philosophy. Would that her editors had told Byatt to cut about 100 pages!
    The question may be: at what point do you decide that the faults in a book over power the “pearls?”


  3. Mary, I have the feeling once a writer has achieved a certain status editors don’t question their writing too much. Byatt and McEwan definitely fall into this category. Not that McEwan writes long books, because his are very tightly written, but I don’t think his editors ask him for too many changes. Or if they do, I think he’s free to say, “No way.” I think that’s a shame.


  4. I’m the outlier in this group. I think Amsterdam is brilliant — including the ending. Yes, the ending sprang up pretty fast, but I think that was to try to keep it hidden. Once the final scene gets rolling, it becomes easier to see where it is going, so it has to happen pretty quickly.
    But, to me, the ending was the only possible ending. Like all Shakespeare comedies ending up with everyone getting married and all Greek tragedies ending with people dying. The point isn’t the ending itself, it’s the elaborate dance that gets us there. I thought that watching the two men was liking watching a tango — even though you know it will end with a spin and a flourish, the dance is mesmerizing and the end grand.
    I’m not saying this well because I’m typing while I eat lunch. But the parallel stories of the two men delaminating could only end in tragedy, because McEwan peeled away everything in their lives that had any meaning for them. So it was either going to be a double suicide or, with a little twist, the ending McEwan wrote.


  5. Rose C.R., I loved reading your perspective on Amsterdam. I can see what you mean re: Clive having lost his musical ability and Vernon having his editorial career effectively ended. It’s also true each agreed to kill the other should their lives become useless, which they basically were by losing their passions. But I thought the ending rushed, and as such I felt let down by the book as a whole. It does add to my perspective, though, reading your comments. Thanks for that. I may have rushed to judgment on this one, but I still question its Booker win. He’s written better books.


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