Ian McEwan writes high literature of dirty vitality. During his career, he has been censored by the BBC and accused of plagiarism from a pornographic novel. In his writing, you can find portrayals of castration, bestiality, incest, transvestitism, sadism, child abduction, stalking, mutual poisoning, wrongful prosecution, rape in front of family, mannequin love, and underage sex with a lesbian midget. The most depraved parts of human nature find their way into McEwan’s books and are then rendered with beautiful prose.
The unpleasantness practically sears the pages of Amsterdam. I had to stop reading a number of times just to collect myself after a particularly sour page. This is black humor of the nastiest variety; full of unsympathetic characters whose desire to be virtuous is continually punished by characters still less deserving of sympathy.
Is it great literature? Probably not. I yearn, I thirst, I hunger to glut myself on more books about bad people. But the threadbare interior lives we’re given here make for a surprisingly meager meal. Instead, we feast on a slightly lesser pleasure; watching bad people do bad things. And that is friggin’ delicious. The selfishness of these characters is palpable, all the moreso for realizing that we might be more like these people than we want to admit. If this is great literature, it can stake its claim on the way which spiteful, evil acts grow so organically out of the story that we’re coerced into an uncomfortable pang of recognition: in our worst moments we might have done the same.
In the place of inner thoughts, we have the processes by which these characters go about their jobs, and McEwan writes with uncanny accuracy about how they work. McEwan takes us into the creative process of composer, Clive Linley. Every composer will immediately recognize the euphoria of coming up with a great idea, followed by the inevitable depression that follows in trying to develop it; or how fatal an interruption can be to creativity. Anyone who has ever led a foundering organization will immediately recognize the predicament of Vernon Halliday, editor of the struggling broadsheet ‘The Judge’, who must resort to extreme measures to keep his paper afloat; and must be politic with an uncooperative staff hunting for his head.
If Amsterdam can be said to have a theme, it is friendship, and the ease with which its bond can come undone. The strongest portions of Amsterdam are the ones which deal with the relationship between the two protagonists, and the flawless demonstration of how easily forty years of close friendship can turn into bitter enmity from the smallest passing remark. In McEwan’s later masterpiece, Saturday, he portrays a protagonist whose assumptions that he is a civilized man are consistently being threatened by everyone from family, friends, co-workers and random strangers. If Saturday succeeds as great literature where Amsterdam fails, it is probably because Henry Perowne’s sense of civilization never completely deserts him, however tempting that urge becomes.
At least Amsterdam makes no apologies for breaking civilization’s veneer. McEwan turns these characters into animals with relish. No elusive poetic truth lies beneath, only the all-too-common realization that beneath our wishes for good sense, we are all capable of beastliness. Fortunately, beastliness can be very, very entertaining.