Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam raised a huge amount of controversy when it won the 1998 Booker Prize but it is just as well-written as his other novels. It’s a novel deeply embedded with political satire and shows four male characters who are the very definition of toxic masculinity. Perhaps now in 2021, it can be read in a different light due to the exposure of such pressure on men and the absurdity of the way they act.
Amsterdam opens with a funeral. The death of the former lover of all four male characters Molly Lane uniting them, or rather providing a place for their jealousy to be expanded upon. Molly’s husband George had not let any of the men see her during her last days. Her brain had begun to fail her and instead of having Molly admitted, George had her confined to the house. Very Jane Eyre! In my eyes, he is the real villain of the story.
The two main protagonists we follow are composer Clive Linley and journalist Vernon Halliday. In the middle of their friendship appears Julian, the right-wing foreign secretary who threatens both their lives if they prevent him from being elected. All four characters are morally corrupt and selfish. Even Clive who was charitable to Vernon during their earlier years sinks deeper into an egotism adopted by most men of their status.
Why are all these men acquaintances if they detest each other and want nothing but the other to fail? Julian summaries this to Clive at the funeral: “to air differences and remain friends, the essence of civilised existence”. These men only remain in contact so they can use and exploit one another.
We never see the character of Molly, she is only referenced. It’s a male-dominated novel, reflecting a male-dominated world. McEwan uses her just like the male characters do. Perhaps this is immoral on McEwan’s behalf but I believe he had good intentions. Molly’s invisibility, her ability to only appear when needed reflects women’s position in the world at the time. They were only used to save men and boost their egos.
Julian could not save his career when Vernon’s paper threatened to expose pictures Molly took (of which George gave him) of Julian cross-dressing. Julian’s wife had to tell the country that she supported her husband and it was shameful of others to see it as wrongful — they were in a new generation where it should be accepted. It seems like implicitly, the women are controlling the discourse. They keep the world spinning because of the crazy things toxic masculinity cause men to do. Whilst men and fighting one another, women are picking up the pieces and putting them back together again.
Towards the end of the novel, Vernon loses his job. Although Vernon lectures Clive on morality after he witnesses a rape and does nothing but return home and compose a melody, he fails to act morally himself. It’s a typical example of critiquing others but excluding yourself from that criticism. McEwan comments in the novel, “No one wants to stand up first and be shot down”. All these men are passive in the face of the oppression they are facing and imposing. It’s a scary and tangled web that only gets darker as the novel ends. McEwan does not give us a satisfactory conclusion but certainly one for reflection.
Amsterdam delves deeper into the sinister world of politics and masculinity and shows nothing good can ever come out of it. Deeply embedded into the novel is the message that change is coming. Over two decades later we are aware of the constructed nature of gender we can see how horrifying the world is for anyone trapped within the bubble of toxic masculinity.