Friday, August 17, 2012

Fun, Bitter and Slim, but Not Worth the Booker

Among my peers, I fear I am alone in never having read anything by Ian McEwan. When I mentioend this recently to another reading friend, she was horrified. I told her that I was reading Amsterdam, the book McEwan had won the Booker Prize for, and she was only a little mollified. In some circle, McEwan's Booker for Amsterdam is called the "Consolation Booker" for all of the other years he should have won but didn't.

All that aside, Amsterdam, a slight novel of about 160 pages, is absorbing, funny, and sharp. The story revolves around four middle-aged men, each of them former lovers of the saintly and sexy Molly Lane, who meet at her funeral. There's Vernon Halliday, the editor of a dying newspaper, intent on keeping it afloat by dipping into sensationalism; Clive Linley the once-famous composer; Julian Garmony, the right-wing Foreign Secretary almost certainly headed towards political super-stardom; and poor bitter George, Molly's husband, who had to put up with all of her affairs. Each man's bitterness is overshadowed by his narcissistic sense of self-importance.

I found the novel sharply funny, if not terribly deep. I particularly enjoyed McEwan's portrayal of the modern newsroom, awash with all of the tensions of dying print media and the public's obsessions with the latest scandal, as well as common, everyday office politics. Less interesting to me was the tortured, pathetic composer's attempts at findign the right setting and the right melody for his Millenial Symphony, due to premiere in Amsterdam, the scene of the novel's denouement.

At times, I felt like we were supposed to see this as a morality play--were Halliday's motives less base and selfish than Linley's, and did their actions (and inaction) have something to do with the ultimate success of Garmony? But there just wasn't the moral weight to make me feel like this were true--these weren't life and death situations. They were mere moral manipulations colored by selfish desires and aspirations. In the end, I couldn't have been happier with the fates of Halliday and Linley--each deserved what he got. But that doesn't necessarily make a great or important novel. I couldn't help feeling while I was reading this slim novel that McEwan was playing with us; the novel felt like a little diversion and not a fully-realized, larger-than-life piece. It's satire, social commentary. He's a good writer, I don't doubt that. But it hardly seems like this was worth the Booker Prize.

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