Amsterdam? Atonement.

In 1998 Ian McEwan won the so-coveted-a-writer-would-step-over-his-own-scotch-to-win-it Booker Prize for his novel Amsterdam. It's a Shakespearean/Grecian tragicomedy about two men who, after the funeral of a friend Molly (who took both men as her lovers at one point in time or another), go on two meteoric paths that lead them from great success and confidence to failure and ultimately death. Clive, a composer and self-thought genius charged with penning the Millennial Symphony that will become a theme for the world in the 21st Century, ends up at odds with Vernon, the editor of fictional UK-paper The Judge over what is essentially a mutual misunderstanding. Both men are flawed, tragically, in the near-Hamlet/Romeo & Juliet-esque sense. Circumstantial errors in judgement, and comically petty contrivances lead to their demise. Now, clearly, the book is meant as farce. It's hilarious. In the tiny notes of rich comedy that comprise the "British humour" (Notice the "u"). You can't help but laugh at the absurdity of the situations these two men find themselves in and subsequently blow out of proportion.

Amsterdam is a fine work of fiction. Watch-like in its craftsmanship. Each note is placed effectively, and the final joke against both Clive and Vernon-insomuch as how they both die-pops up from several points in the story to razz you saying, "I was here all along! Gotcha! Hard!" McEwan provides a great story, peppered with the right seasoning of gags, slapstick and dark humor. But it doesn't resonate, at least it didn't for me. I finished, and I felt reasonably satisfied. I was disappointed, but I wasn't on my cell moments after texting to everyone I knew that they "MUST READ THIS BOOK".

I sent that text message after I read Atonement, McEwan's 2001 masterpiece. Let me rephrase. Atonement was the BEST BOOK OF 2001 and is A MASTERPIECE! Atonement was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2001. Short-listed! People say it is an honor just to be nominated, and sure, I agree. Hell, I'd be elated, dancing on the fucking table if anything I write comes within 500 authors of the Booker. It's an honor, McEwan should certainly be honored, but Atonement is a revelation compared to Amsterdam. They're built for different things, and it is like comparing an ham sandwich to a ham radio... both books (both "hams") but not matched. Still, straightforward comparability aside, Atonement left me devastated. The whole tone and weight of the book, and the characters I loved fell upon me at once. I was lost, emotionally, mentally for hours after I closed the back cover. Everything McEwan built, all the cute, wry naivety and realism crashed down. If you haven't yet read Atonement you should. Now. Or. Right after you finish reading this. It's a book about something so simple, as McEwan does best, as a misunderstanding. From that, a little girl alters her life and the lives of her sister, and her sister's lover. If you've seen the movie-and it's great, I know, I enjoyed it-you still ought read the book to get a full grasp of McEwan's clean, careful prose. And so much of the book occurs inside the minds of the characters that the film can't do it complete justice. But all this is beside the point...

For a book with so much tangible gravitas to be denied a victory for the Booker Prize, while another that was great, but by no means as essential a read, wins is unsatisfying. Perplexing even. Perhaps this is why my continued efforts to join the Booker Prize Committee have failed. If I only were more Irish. Kidding, of course.

Read both books. And anything else Ian McEwan has written or writes. He's an exceptional author and one overlooked too often on popular reading lists.

1 comment:

  1. Part of what made Amsterdam kind of bland for me was, the three men that Molly sexually coddles are scoundrels and not much else. Their past successes die with Molly and their current failures become more painful to bear.

    On another note, I read the book as a tragedy until I was halfway through and Sean pointed out the black humour that I wasn't picking up on. At that point the ending became more profound.