After the Death of Molly Lane

Two men make poor choices in 'Amsterdam,' Ian McEwan's new morality tale.

Ian McEwan is one of those writers who has hovered in the periphery of my vision, but never quite made it to center stage. It has taken the news that McEwan won this year's Booker Prize to bring him, at last, to my attention. This is my least favorite way to hear about an author; I hate to be the last to know. And so, when his slim prize-winning volume came into my hands, I opened it ready to be wowed. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (Doubleday, $21) The book is Amsterdam, a morality tale about the lives of two men after the death of a woman—Molly Lane—they have both loved and admired. From the first page, Molly takes on the spiritual proportions of a Valkyrie: "Molly, restaurant critic, gorgeous wit, and photographer, the daring gardener, who had been loved by the foreign secretary and could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six." The men are both, by most standards, successful. Clive Linley is a composer who can pull a melody out of thin air; even when surrounded by grief at Molly's funeral, he hears "something seriously wrong with the world for which neither God nor his absence could be blamed. Man's first disobedience, the Fall, a falling figure, an oboe, nine notes, ten notes. Clive had the gift of perfect pitch and heard them descending from the G. There was no need to write them down." Clive has been commissioned to write a symphony for the millennium, and with this work he hopes to cement his reputation for the ages. The other man, Vernon Halliday, is the editor of the Judge, a newspaper whose circulation is rapidly decreasing. While Clive revels in his artistic solitude, Vernon's middle age is more uneasy; he's more prickled by doubt, fear, and shame. Enter into these more or less settled lives the nagging tap of the moral choice. For Vernon, the choice is whether or not to destroy, for the sake of his failing newspaper, the political career of a man he intensely dislikes, an ex-flame of Molly's, the foreign secretary. He reasons that the downfall of this man will save England from a ruinous prime minister. Clive, on the other hand, stumbles onto an attempted assault while on a meditative vacation in the Lake District, and chooses to walk away from it—so as to not destroy the budding symphony in his head. Both men act for what they feel are the best of reasons. Vernon makes his choice for history, and Clive rationalizes that he, too, has served eternity by writing music that will last. And yet both men act horribly, reprehensibly. They are mistaken not only in a small moral sense, but in a large historical one. Parsed out like this, Amsterdam seems a lot more grand than it actually reads. I am disappointed to say, having finally looked squarely at Ian McEwan and differentiated him from all the other Scottish-surnamed Ians, that Amsterdam is a fairly thin read. What has been set out as the center of the book, the superb ghost against which Clive's and Vernon's actions are measured, is curiously absent. (Well, of course she's absent—she's dead.) But Molly's presence is never really established, and one senses that she's meant to pressurize the events that follow. Instead, she seems to be a red herring, a brief shimmering moment in the pasts of each man, from which they have learned, essentially, nothing. Amsterdam is indeed a tale—a story told to illustrate a moral point. These men made bad choices, McEwan tells us. We should be less concerned with how history will remember us than with being good people while we're alive. But the best tales are those in which the story lives on beyond the moral—indeed are less morals cloaked in a story than a story that produces something thoughtworthy. Once I had pulled the moral out of Amsterdam, I didn't give it a second thought. When I am disappointed by a prize-winning novel, I feel guilty. I felt guilty enough to shell out the money for a copy of McEwan's last novel, the well-received Enduring Love. This earlier work—a story of tragedy, obsession, and the possibility that there is, ultimately, no redemption—is by no means a perfect book, but it's much better than Amsterdam. The writing takes flight more often, the characters are felt to the bone. Like Amsterdam, it has the feeling of a tale, a story told to a point, but in this case the story is the point. Enduring Love was short-listed for the Booker last year, but didn't win; I wonder if the judges aren't playing a bit of catch-up. What's the moral of that story? Emily Hall is a writer living in Seattle.

 
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