Craig Seligman reviews 'Amsterdam' by Ian McEwan

Published December 9, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Ian McEwan's "Amsterdam," the beautifully written novel that just won him the Booker Prize,
opens at the funeral of a woman who has died of a debilitating disease; the title refers to a city with liberalized euthanasia laws, and it doesn't take long to see where the book is heading. (McEwan, who has a master's confidence, isn't afraid of being obvious.) The two main characters, and the only two important ones, are both Londoners, old friends and erstwhile lovers of the dead woman: Clive Linley, a distinguished composer immersed in the composition of a symphony to celebrate the new millennium, and Vernon Halliday, the editor in chief of a dusty old left-leaning newspaper, which he is trying to jazz up (and dumb down) in order to save. They're opposite types, the artist and the man of the world, but not all that opposite, and the novel offers a bilious view of the horrors they commit in the pursuit of their admirable goals. Their considerable self-esteem is delusional. Success has rotted them.

And yet. McEwan wants to despise Clive, but he devotes the novel's loveliest and most fascinating pages to the creation of that symphony. They're fine enough to hold up next to those wonderful passages in "The Tragic Muse" in which Henry James describes the working methods of painter Nick Dormer; both writers, it's evident, are really writing about themselves. But McEwan doesn't want to be Clive, whose selfishness appalls him. So he has skewed the book toward the malignant and even the nihilistic. He isn't content just to expose Clive and Vernon, he has to reduce them to beasts; and in its final, ugly and cynical pages, the novel goes haywire and ceases to be convincing.

What happened? "Amsterdam" is a plotty book -- a tragedy with the heartless logic of a farce -- and McEwan must have carefully laid out the plot machinery before he began constructing his characters. When his puppets came unexpectedly alive, more complicated and more sympathetic than he had planned for, he forced them into his machinery anyway, and they jammed it.

Clive plans to introduce a broad, straightforward theme in the finale of his symphony, and then to bring it in again, in altered form, at the end of the movement. Reintroducing it without the alteration, he knows, will reduce it to banality, but he worries that his deadline will arrive before inspiration does. It never occurs to him that one solution is to not reintroduce the melody. And it doesn't occur to McEwan, either. He returns, at the end of the book, to the broad, troubling theme from which the novel takes its title; his carefully wrought structure demands it. McEwan is an aesthete like Clive, seduced by the beauties of symmetry, and he's undone, in the end, by his own exquisite craftsmanship: Instead of betraying his structure, he betrays his book.

By Craig Seligman

Craig Seligman is the author of "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," and an editor at Absolute New York.

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