Wages of Sin

Amsterdam

by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 193 pp., $21.00

Ian McEwan is a prize winner. His novels and stories have won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Whitbread Prize, and have been shortlisted for Britain’s most hyped trophy, the Booker Prize. This year he won it with Amsterdam. When the award was made in October, there were murmurs that it must have been an act of reparation by this year’s Booker judges for their predecessors’ mistake: the 1997 prize should have gone to McEwan for Enduring Love, which was thought to be a much meatier, longer, and more profound novel. Amsterdam is an intricate satirical jeu d’esprit and topical to the point of Tom Wolfeishness. It is also funnier than anything McEwan has written before, though just as lethal.

Death always figures in his work. In his heart-rending (but ultra-cool) first novel, The Cement Garden, a mother dies and her four young children bury her in a box of cement in the basement: their father died some time before, and they realize that if her death becomes known, they will be separated and sent to orphanages. In The Innocent, a couple of lovers accidentally kill the woman’s violent divorced husband in self-defense. McEwan devotes many pages to their methodical dismembering of the body (“There was a glutinous sound which brought him the memory of a jelly eased from its mould”) and the difficulties of its disposal. Reviewing Enduring Love (which opens sensationally with a man killed falling from a balloon) in these pages last April, Rosemary Dinnage remarked that “among the critical praise that festoons his book jackets, the word ‘macabre’ crops up more than once.” But until Amsterdam, McEwan’s macabre has not been merely “grim, gruesome” (OED); not been like, say, Genet’s. There have been hints of the supernatural. His novels are spooky—particularly Enduring Love and The Child in Time, which is, among other things, about second sight.

So what happened when McEwan won this year’s Booker Prize seemed as strange as one of his own plots—as though he himself had second sight, in fact. On the very day it was announced, a ministerial scandal broke in the British press and the subsequent events developed along lines uncannily like the story of Amsterdam. In fact as in fiction, a government minister resigned because of a harmless sexual indiscretion. The real-life minister went home with a stranger he met on Clapham Common, a known homosexual beat. He was robbed at knife-point and blackmailed. He informed the police, the affair became public, and he chose to resign. In Amsterdam, McEwan’s foreign secretary is forced to resign because photographs of him in drag appear on the front page of a national paper. What makes the coincidence even stranger is that as the real-life events in Britain faded from the front page, a story broke about the birth of Siamese twins: it happens in Amsterdam as well.

Julian Garmony, the foreign secretary in Amsterdam, is a bland right-wing monster, a hanger and …

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