Sunday

The Art of the Double-Entendre: Ian McEwan's Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a short and unabashedly plot-driven novel, and there’s a lot to like about it.  McEwan’s sentences are straightforward, literate, and acutely insightful, sweeping the reader down the current of the darkly comic story.  The descriptions are sharp, the characters interesting, and there’s a wry elegaic aspect: the two protagonists mourn their lost youth in the ebbing twentieth century.  McEwan is especially good at portraying his protagonists’ jobs: one is a composer and the other a newspaperman, and we get detailed insight into the workaday doings of each in long passages that are mysteriously appealing; perhaps there is a universal curiosity about work, a desire to vicariously experience another human being’s field of expertise. 

But really, the rocket fuel that powers this exquisite little page-turner is that much sought-after quantity for narrative artists: dramatic tension. 

The opening scene takes place at a funeral for Molly Lane, a friend and lover of Clive and Vernon, the dual (and eventually dueling) protagonists.  During this scene we get insight into the way their minds work, their back-stories, etc.—but the main thing that keeps us reading is a series of little hints that are dropped casually, mostly in the form of double-entendres, that foreshadow the terrible events to come.  For context, it’s important to know that Molly has died of a terrible neurological disease, one that began with a slight tingling in her arm and quickly spiraled down into memory loss, madness, and pain. 

The funeral takes place on a cold day, so perhaps it’s not unusual that Clive is “losing the sensation in his feet.”   This first double entendre may slide by without much notice, no more than a slightly disorienting jolt, but when Clive notices “so many faces [he’d] never seen by daylight, and looking terrible, like cadavers jerked upright to welcome the newly dead,” we really begin to suspect that something is awry. 

McEwan relies on a cumulative effect to be sure that there is no misunderstanding:
[Clive] heard a woman call out merrily, “I can’t feel my hands or my feet and I’m going.” 
These brief and seemingly casual snippets work on a subconscious level, pricking our awareness to keep us alert to the main thrust of the story.  In effect, the reader is spooked into paying attention.  The masterful way McEwan has Clive filtering the busy conversation at the funeral—the lines the composer’s subconscious mind elects to overhear—together with the protagonist’s exaggeratedly morbid observations, sets the perfect tone for this novelistic black comedy.

We find some less subtle foreshadowing also, as when Clive tells Vernon,
“You know, I should have married her.  When she started to go under, I would have killed her with a pillow or something and saved her from everyone’s pity.”
By the end of the first scene, the reader has received the first major dosage of dramatic tension—which is, not coincidentally, directly tied to the central plot conflict: Clive and Vernon’s twilight struggle with mortality, and their eventual reciprocal murder.

In Chapter Two, Clive’s struggle with mortality surges forth into his conscious mind:
Anxieties about work transmuted into the baser metal of simple night fear: illness and death, abstractions that soon found their focus in the sensation he still felt in his left hand.
He manages to convince himself he’s just being paranoid, and represses his fear by taking sleeping pills.  For awhile everything seems okay—he consoles himself by deciding to take a trip to the Lake District, a landscape he’s always found soothing—but he can’t expunge the fear entirely.  As he drifts off to sleep his subconscious returns to the morbid double-entendre mode of the funeral scene:
He had swallowed his hemlock, and there’d be no more tormenting fantasies now.  This thought too was comfort, so that long before the chemicals had reached his brain, he had drawn his knees toward his chest and was released.  Hardknott, Ill Bell, Cold Pike, Poor Crag, Poor Molly . . .
McEwan’s second protagonist, Vernon, undergoes a similar process, though he copes with it differently.  Chapter Three begins, “The thought recurred to Vernon Halliday during an uncharacteristic lull in his morning that he might not exist.” 

This has the ring of a classic short-story “hook,” something out of Kafka, but of course it too is subtly tied to the central theme of mortality.  Vernon suppresses his fear by exercising authority—by losing himself in his work as Editor of the newspaper – but he is constantly aware of a recurring “sense of absence”:
Last night he had woken beside his sleeping wife and had to touch his own face to be assured he remained a physical entity.
He’s also touching his head a lot, although he doesn’t take note of it himself until page 33:
There was now a physical symptom.  It involved the whole right side of his head, both skull and brain somehow, a sensation for which there was simply no word.
Both protagonists become increasingly obsessed with their own mortality.  The main plot dynamo is fully wound up. Much of the rest of the book involves Clive and Vernon fruitlessly seeking a deeper refuge in their work—each of which comes with a nifty internal plot dynamo of its own.  Everything fits together like clockwork, propelling us to the final symmetrical resolution.