What Happens in Amsterdam

…sort of ruins Ian McEwan’s book, Amsterdam, as far as I’m concerned. Most of the novel takes place in England, and is quietly excellent. It’s just the last section in the eponymous city. The weird section.

On the plus side, the book is really short.

The word I most want to use to describe that ending, actually, is silly. Only, it seems so silly that I feel like it must actually be making some sort of metafictional point about the silliness of the whole idea of an ending. Except this just doesn’t read like that sort of book. Everything about McEwan’s book–the language, certainly–suggests that what he hopes to do is create a crisp, fresh, traditional novel. With a really dumb ending.

The ending problem in Amsterdam seems related to a broader problem in McEwan’s writing, for me: that I can’t read him without thinking writing workshop. It’s not easy to pick out exactly why I get this feeling. It’s something more than just the bland technical excellence. It has to do perhaps, with the way McEwan loves creating a character through the language of his work and passions–the newspaper man thinks like a newspaper man, the pianist thinks like a pianist. Generally, it’s just that while McEwan is doing lots of things very well, I always feel like I can see him doing them. I can see him paying careful attention to the language of the musician and how it differs from that of the journalist. I can see him weighing the elegance and tension of his structure. Everything just feels so consciously measured, so carefully well-made. Lots of people probably experience that as a positive–Amsterdam won the Booker, after all. The prose itself is beautifully crisp. But the whole thing lacks an essential spark for me, a wildness.

Which is part of why I feel like the ending fits into this whole writing workshop feel. The off-kilter ending attempts to zap some life into all the previous precisely lined up words. It reminds me of a couple of stories I’ve written for classes–overly careful, with a zany ending. Really though, I don’t know what to make of it. For all my criticisms, McEwan is a master of traditional storytellling. How did he produce a book with the most unconvincing ending I’ve ever read? What am I missing?

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3 thoughts on “What Happens in Amsterdam

  1. It’s a mystery why ‘Amsterdam’ won the Booker Prize given that all of McEwan’s other novels shortlisted for the same award over the years have been much stronger works.

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