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.

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  1. Elle on April 26, 2005 at 8:39 pm

    I love to read your take on various authors. In my experience, I have found very few mystery authors who write books where the plot and/or charactization is strong and consistent. My main complaint (present company excluded, of course) is that most of what I find is either all fluff and no substance (characters or plot or both) or the motivation for the character to be involved in the storyline at all is severely lacking.

    One of the reasons I look so forward to a new Mary Russell is because I know you take great pains to craft your story instead of throwing it on the page just to see how it turns out!

  2. L. Scher on April 28, 2005 at 12:20 am

    Without going in to too much detail, I loved, loved, loved, Atonement, yet was sorely disappointed by Amsterdam and Enduring Love. Nonetheless, I snatched up Saturday on the laydown date and read it over the course of two days. Quite good, but Atonement is still my favorite.

    As with Atonement, it took a while to get into the rhythm of McEwan’s writing, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. Stream-of-consciousness, yet doesn’t read like Virginia Woolf (interesting how both *Saturday* and *Mrs. Dalloway* deal with a single day’s events in the preparations for a dinner party). The richness is in the details, whether it be a squash game (16 pages to describe said game was a bit much, however), neurosurgery, listening to the Blues, or preparing a seafood stew. There’s a marvelous quote about music that alone is worth the price of the book.

  3. Jenny D on April 29, 2005 at 1:52 am

    Interesting… I thought Atonement was fine but somewhat overrated, didn’t much like Amsterdam and haven’t read Saturday. But the books of McEwan’s I like best actually really do have the feel of crime fiction: I loved Enduring Love and The Cement Garden is an insanely good classic. And even The Child in Time sort of works like a psychological thriller.

  4. WDI on May 2, 2005 at 8:00 pm

    This seems like as good a place as any to ask (if I haven’t already) if anyone is interested in setting up a thread for book recommendations. I mean, we obviously have one favorite author in common, which seems like a good starting point. What do y’all think?

  5. Keith Snyder on May 7, 2005 at 1:41 am

    Hi, Laurie. I just found out you had a blog.

    I agree. The ending was sitcom-cheap.

    I remember reading somewhere, at the time, an opinion that winning for AMSTERDAM was really a consolation for not winning with a previous book. I forget what the previous book was. Or where I read this. Or who wrote it. Or… what was I saying?

  6. The Cat Bastet on August 23, 2005 at 2:22 pm

    Hi Laurie,

    I’e2’80’99m a long-time fan who recently discovered your blog. I enjoy it so much that I went back to read it from the beginning. I especially enjoy your discussions of writing.

    You said: ‘e2’80’9csorry, it seems I am not permitted to underline or italicize in this program.’e2’80’9d

    When you are creating a post there are two ways to add underline or italics. Like you, I’e2’80’99m using a Mac. My toolbar above the box where I type a post includes an Italic button (similar to MS Word); just select the text and click the ‘e2’80’9ci’e2’80’9d button in the toolbar.

    If your browser doesn’e2’80’99t show this toolbar you can make add underline or italic by using html tags. Just add an ‘e2’80’9ci’e2’80’9d in pointed brackets (< >) before the text and ‘e2’80’9c/i’e2’80’9d in pointed brackets after the text. Similarly, ‘e2’80’9cu’e2’80’9d and ‘e2’80’9c/u’e2’80’9d in pointed brackets will underline the text. I can’e2’80’99t actually type it like a tag because Blogger won’e2’80’99t let me post these tags in a comment, so I hope this makes sense!

    Cathy from Davison, MI

  7. The Cat Bastet on August 23, 2005 at 3:25 pm

    Hi again Laurie,

    I just noticed that under the window where you type a post my browser also gives a list of keyboard shortcuts (even easier than html!). When I clicked on the link I go this info:

    Blogger has several keyboard shortcuts for use while editing posts. They definitely work in Internet Explorer 5.5+/Windows and the Mozilla family (1.6+ and Firefox 0.9+), and might work in other browsers. Here they are:

    * control + b = Bold
    * control + i = Italic
    * control + l = Blockquote (when in HTML-mode only)
    * control + z = Undo
    * control + y = Redo
    * control + shift + a = Link
    * control + shift + p = Preview
    * control + d = Save as Draft
    * control + s = Publish Post

    I apologize for commenting twice. I’m still new to blogging and commenting!

    Cathy from Davison, MI

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