Books: Another study in emotional frigidity

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape pounds 14.99

Alain de Botton
Saturday 12 September 1998 23:02 BST

Ian McEwan is a rare phenomenon; a hugely talented literary novelist who also knows how to keep the reader turning pages. Admirers will know that his beginnings are as compulsive as those of any crime writer. Within only a few pages of Enduring Love, Black Dogs and The Child in Time, McEwan crisply sets up a haunting dramatic situation that will have repercussions throughout the book. We sense the author skilfully lighting his fuse and are compelled to find out just how it will explode.

Amsterdam is no exception. It is a freezing February day. In a London crematorium, Molly Lane, a famous middle-aged journalist and cookery writer, is being turned into ashes after succumbing to a wasting disease that killed her in only a few months. Molly had been a star of the social scene, inspiring passion in some of the most eminent men of her generation. Many have come to the crematorium to pay their last respects: there is George, a wealthy publisher whom she married towards the end of her life; Julian Garmony, the country's ambitious Conservative Foreign Secretary; Clive Linley, a leading classical composer (a la John Taverner) and Vernon Halliday, the editor of a broadsheet, The Judge. The funeral is to be a pivotal moment in all their lives; two of them will soon be dead, one of them will be ruined, and one of them will have had the satisfaction of revenge.

Aside from the dead Molly Lane, there are no women in this book. Amsterdam is a pitiless study of the darker aspects of male psychology, of male paranoia, emotional frigidity, sexual jealousy, professional rivalry and performance anxiety. One wouldn't in real life wish to spend long in the company of any of the novel's protagonists, but on the page McEwan's clinical examination of these rotten souls is ghoulishly compelling. The bereaved husband is a fat nervous man with "pleading greedy eyes" who has an unhealthy obsession with his late wife's suitors. The Foreign Secretary is a caricature of the most right-wing members of the last government, he is described as a "hanger and flogger, the family values man, the scourge of immigrants, asylum seekers, travellers, marginal people". The musician Clive Linley is self-pitying and pompous, convinced of his own genius and contemptuous of others, while his friend Vernon Halliday is the nightmarish distillation of all of Fleet Street's most servile and opportunistic editors.

Despite the darkness of the themes, or perhaps because of them, Amsterdam is extremely funny in a black sort of way. McEwan is a brilliant social satirist, and some of the best passages of the novel come in the remorseless descriptions of life on the daily newspaper run by one of the protagonists. The editor, Halliday, is "widely known as a man without edges, without faults or virtues, as a man who did not fully exist"; he is a nonentity who has risen to be editor by making neither friends nor allies, and by managing to break a huge story about the US president, discovering that he had procured a radical hair implant at the taxpayer's expense in an affair that became known as "Pategate". There are great sketches of daily editorial meetings, of the language of circulation managers and of the manoeuvrings of power-hungry deputy editors.

Readers of Enduring Love will remember harrowing descriptions of his hero's career anxieties and frustrated ambitions, and Amsterdam returns to this terrain. The editor of the daily paper and the musician both face the possibility of failure; for the former, circulation figures are falling relentlessly, for the latter, inspiration has deserted him just when he needed to fulfil a vital commission. It is to avoid failure that these men make a moral decision which will have fatal consequences for both.

Amsterdam can't entirely avoid the problem faced by any novel with no sympathetic characters. McEwan doesn't encourage us to identify or sympathise with anyone in the book, though that doesn't sink it. It just locates the satisfying core elsewhere: in McEwan's bleak, satirical intelligence.

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