Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan
1998, 193 pages
When I was a ludicrous and aspiring young writer, I discovered that my greatest obstacle was my complete inability to think up a story to hang all my clever characters, situations, bits of dialogue, and passages of description onto. I flailed around for a while, reading several novels for inspiration, and finally had an epiphany: to some extent, virtually all interesting stories revolve around Something Bad Happening to a character. Nobody wants to read a book in which a character gets everything they want all the time with no trouble. We want suffering, because we recognize that to be alive means to suffer, and through an empathy for the character who is suffering, we create for ourselves the illusion that others may feel empathy for our own suffering. This concept drives all sorts of art, from Charlie Brown to Hamlet. I began to practice it at its most primitive: I would literally create a character and then do bad things to him. I had one where a guy’s car breaks down in Nevada, so he tries to walk to the nearest gas station, but then he steps in a gopher hole and breaks his ankle, and then gets stung by a scorpion and finally he sees somebody on a fence up ahead, but when he crawls there it turns out to be Death. I had another one where I had a blind guy fall out of a rowboat in a lake. That sort of thing.
I mention this because Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam is the sort of book I would have written then, if only I’d had quite a lot of talent and polish. It is a very small book, with very few characters, very little passage of time, and absolutely nothing extraneous. This gives the book a sort of virtuoso quality: it is a kind of glittering, sharp, steel trap which once activated plays itself out according to merciless, indifferent internal logic. This economy of character and language, though, means that virtually every surprise is telegraphed far ahead of time. At first I frowned at Mr. McEwan, writing in my notes that while he certainly is marvelously skilled, he is not as clever, nor I as dense, as he seems to think. By the end, though, he clears things up: “On the other hand,” he writes, in regards to how a first-class stamp could have saved two people, “perhaps no other outcomes were available to them, and this was the nature of their tragedy.” It is less that McEwan shows his hand too early and more that he delights in letting you know what outrageous and disturbing thing it is he is about to do to his characters, and then making you watch, helpless, to see if he actually does it. And indeed he does.
On those grounds, I am going to slightly give away the ending. You will know the ending a little past the halfway point, if not sooner, and the pleasure (or unease?) of the book is watching it happen, so I hope I will be forgiven. McEwan sets up two friends: Clive, an eminent composer, and Vernon, a powerful newspaper editor. They meet at the funeral of a woman who former the lover of both of them, and they make a pact that if one is ever in a state of mental decay, the other will help him die. Then they go back to their lives, but shortly thereafter each face a moral crisis in which they choose wrongly. Their respective decisions alienate each other, and directly or indirectly cause professional ruin. When they both go to Amsterdam under false pretenses, each one convinces a Dutch doctor (they are very open about euthanasia there, you know) that the other is insane and must be killed, according to their pact.
Now I must admit the end is a bit of a stretch. I am well aware of the laissez-faire approach the Dutch have towards assisted suicide, but I somehow doubt that a doctor in Amsterdam will kill somebody just on the say-so of somebody else. But everything up until that point has been crafted with such skill and tight control that I was willing to go along. McEwan is deft at sketching out both central characters in a minimum of space, and is quite effective and presenting each of their own private worlds in its unique specificities. Clive has a lovely house in Kensington with a large, disordered studio where he writes his symphony; Vernon's life is one of frantic meetings and constant arguments, each demonstrated efficiently and memorably. McEwan has a curious habit of giving a short chapter to one character which ends in a cliffhanger, then doubling back in time to explain via the other character how that cliffhanger occurred. It’s a strange technique, but a much more interesting one than simply cutting back and forth, and is in perfect unity with the content, adding to the impression of a dangerous metal flower unfolding.
I’m given to understand that all of McEwan’s work is like this: short, stark little novels in which disturbing (often violent, demented, or inexplicable) events and people interrupt someone’s well-ordered, ordinary life, and he watches, detached, as they grapple with the emotional and moral fallout. Amsterdam is the novel he won the Booker Prize for, but I have not seen it recieve startlingly more praise than any other of his novels: apparently, he always writes with this sort of skill. Reading the reviews, I was not convinced that I wanted to read a novel like that more than once, but after this book, which is so compact and professional, I am persuaded. His novels are so brief and swift that they can be consumed easily in one or two sittings, and I think I shall be glad to have them around to eat through when I am in the mood for watching a consummate craftsman Do Something Bad to a character.