When a highbrow turns to crime
I’e2’80’99ve been on an Ian McEwan binge recently, after reading SATURDAY (sorry, it seems I am not permitted to underline or italicize in this program, so you’ll just have to let me shout the titles at you. Complain to Google, they run Blogspot….) and loving it so much it added it to my very short list of Read This Again novels.
However, AMSTERDAM was a problem. I’e2’80’99m sorry if you haven’e2’80’99t read it, because the only way to get around spoiling the plot for you is for you to stop reading this blog now, which I don’e2’80’99t suppose you will do. On your head be it.
McEwan’e2’80’99s prose is the sort of texture you want to lick luxuriously off the spoon. If he has a flaw, it is in the coolness of his characters’e2’80’94for example, in AMSTERDAM, the plot hinges on a composer being so utterly, passionately wrapped up in a crucial piece of the symphony he’e2’80’99s working on that he turns his back on a woman in trouble. Except that, for this reader, the passion just wasn’e2’80’99t there. I could SEE why the man would retreat with his notebook, but I couldn’e2’80’99t FEEL it, it was just a series of facts that added up to an action, or rather lack of action. If we had just a trace of the man’e2’80’99s anguish, his actions would make sense. As it is, he impresses one as less passionate than peevish.
But what really troubled me was the ending. The book is called AMSTERDAM because that city is where matters come to a head, and because Amsterdam has (according to the story) the sort of suicide laws that allow for a convenient snuffing-out of the unwanted. His two main characters, the composer and his rival, a newspaper editor, make the independent and simultaneous decision to set up the other man’e2’80’99s suicide, and do so. Both succeed. Both die. The end.
AMSTERDAM is capital-L literary fiction, storytelling at its most highbrow. McEwan won the Booker for the thing, which is the very epitome of Literary. And perhaps I should add, the author is not employing some variation of Magical Realism, wherein characters survive drops from mile-high airplanes or carry on conversations with the dead. No, two law-abiding men who, granted, hate each other and are under a fair amount of personal stress, decide in the space of a day to murder one another, and set their plots (one of them rather elaborate involving, apparently, a couple of actors) into motion.
Now, crime fiction is often condemned for its slavish dependence on form, and indeed, a lot of whodunits are little more than the machinery of plot.
But for God’e2’80’99s sake, our stories are generally at least plausible.