Ian McEwan Readers' Group Companion
1. The Author's Work:
Questions for Discussion
Questions for Discussion
Questions for Discussion
Questions for Discussion
2. The Author
3. Recommended Reading
4. Ordering Information
The Author's Work
When you read Ian McEwan's most recent novel, Amsterdam, you'll understand why it won the Booker Prize. When you read his earlier works, you'll wonder why he didn't win it sooner.
The four McEwan novels--Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam, Enduring Love, Black Dogs, and The Innocent--included in this Reading Group Companion, showcase the author's range and skill as he delivers unlikely, and welcome, combinations of suspense, ethics, philosophy, and political and religious ideology. In lesser hands, such a mix might be lethal. In McEwan's, it's intoxicating.
"When it comes to being reasonable, they rather go over the top."
Though this character in Amsterdam is referring specifically to the Dutch people, going over the top is something McEwan does well. Lucky for readers, he vaults high and makes his landings stick.
Amsterdam is wry and smart. Its characters are tested by the irritating circumstances of daily existence familiar to everybody who maneuvers through modern life. They're tested by weightier issues, too--betrayal, death of a loved one, hypocrisy, the power of the media, loneliness. McEwan understands that these dilemmas have even more impact when he gives his readers reason to laugh. And in Amsterdam, he does.
In this novel, two successful men, composer Clive Linley and newspaper editor Vernon Halliday, good friends and former lovers of Molly Lane, meet at her funeral and soon find themselves thick in the midst of events that will test their ethics and their friendship. The choices Clive and Vernon make will alternately challenge, astonish, and amuse readers who become privy to the thoughts of these two talented men. Along the way, readers receive detailed portraits of a newspaper editor determined to air a scandal and sway public opinion and a frustrated composer who ultimately falls short of the demands of his art.
The novel ends with final acts by Clive and Vernon that are rather shocking statements--statements that a less confident and intelligent writer might not allow his characters to make. But in Amsterdam, as in Wonderland, up is down and down is up, and readers will be entertained, challenged, and grateful for it.
Questions for Discussion
1. Talk about the tone of this novel. Is it ironic? Humorous? Menacing?
2. Think about Clive and Vernon and your feelings about each at different stages of the novel. Did those feelings change? If so, at what key points?
3. In a relatively short novel, the author devotes many pages to Clive's creative process. What do you think of the author's description of the process itself and of his decision to give it so much space?
4. At one early point in the novel, Vernon Halliday thinks this about himself, "[H]e was infinitely diluted; he was simply the sum of all the people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all" (page 31). Discuss this prescient statement, in light of Vernon's fate.
5. Discuss the role of lucky (and unlucky) coincidence in the novel: Vernon's rise in his profession due to "Pategate" or the story in the Judge about euthanasia in Holland that leads Clive and Vernon there.
6. Talk about the author's skill in showing the workplace; the composer's process and studio; the newspaper editor's office.
7. This novel is funny--the Siamese twins story, the sub-editor who could not spell--talk about the role of humor in the novel.
8. At different points in the novel, both Clive and Vernon think that Clive has given more to their friendship than Vernon has. Talk about the form and course of their friendship. Can friendships ever be equal?
9. The author suggests that years and success narrow life. Is this true to your experience?
10. The author withholds information throughout the novel, offering bits that are only fully developed later (the photographs of Garmony, the importance of the "medical scandal in Holland"). Talk about the author's use of suspense.
11. How shaky is Clive's moral foundation? Should he be allowed to condemn his fellow artists who "assume the license of free artistic spirit" and renege on commitments, even as Clive ignores the plight of a woman he witnesses being attacked?
12. Vernon wants to crucify Garmony for the greater good of the republic. Is this ever a valid reason to go after a politician? Do you agree with Clive that Vernon is betraying Molly's trust? Or do you side with Vernon in his wish to stop a vile leader from gaining power?
13. Talk about the parallels between the fictional political scandal the author creates and the real one that has occupied Washington, D.C., for the past year. Is the author commenting on U.S. politics and media with this novel?
14. Is everybody in Amsterdam a hypocrite?
15. Clive thinks he's a genius. How do you define genius? Does Clive fit the definition?
16. Talk about Molly and the importance of her role in the novel. Are there other examples in literature of characters who carry great weight and importance even though they never appear?
17. At Allen Crags where Clive watches the woman and man struggle, the author writes, "Clive knew exactly what it was he had to do....He had decided at the very moment he was interrupted" (page 95). Was there any question in your mind at that point about what Clive's decision was? Were you correct?
18. What do you make of the author's choice to have Clive die happy, that is, unaware that he's been poisoned, but to have Vernon grasp in his last seconds "...where he really was and what must have been in his champagne and who these visitors were" (pages 187-188).
"What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness."
The opening chapter of this novel plunges readers into the story. Joe Rose and his wife, Clarissa, celebrate a work-imposed separation of six weeks with a celebratory picnic. The weather is perfect, their pleasure in each other apparent, their love and friendship strong. Then, a balloon accident that ends in tragedy near the field where they picnic changes everything. As Joe notes in the opening pages, "I linger on our dispositions, the relative distances and the compass point--because as far as these occurrences were concerned, this was the last time I understood anything clearly at all."
But the pivotal tragedy in the novel is not the death of a man during a balloon accident. No, McEwan takes a more interesting route. The tragedy is a psychological illness that threatens to destroy a man's love and life. But whose illness is it? That's a question McEwan poses throughout the book. Whom should readers believe? Is Joe Rose delusional and paranoid? Or is paranoia a healthy response to his life? Will another man's mental illness destroy the authentic, deep happiness that Joe and Clarissa have at the novel's beginning? A hint: This is one book where you don't want to skip the appendixes.
Questions for Discussion
1. Which is the enduring love the title refers to?
2. Look carefully at the first chapter and talk about the way in which it holds the promise of the whole novel.
3. The narrator says, "I'm lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible" (page 2). Discuss this as a theme throughout the novel.
4. How does science infuse this story? Discuss the different theories described and explained and their importance to this novel.
5. The author writes of "...morality's ancient, irresolvable dilemma: us, or me" (page 15) in relation to the balloon accident. Does this apply to other situations in the novel as well?
6. Joe describes how Clarissa views the trend in science toward neo-Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, and genetics as "rationalism gone berserk," and adds that she thought "everything was being stripped down...and in the process some larger meaning was lost" (page 75). Discuss this as a theme in the novel.
7. Did you think at the beginning that Joe and Clarissa's relationship would reach the crisis point it did? Did you think that Joe and Clarissa's love would endure? At different points, what made you think so?
8. In chapter nine, the author switches from first-person to third-person point of view, where the reader is in Clarissa's head as imagined by Joe. Talk about this unusual choice. What does it add to your understanding of Joe? Of Clarissa?
9. Did you doubt Joe, as Clarissa and others did? Did the author want you to?
10. In responding to Jean Logan's theory of her husband's tryst, Joe says, "But you can't know this...it's so particular, so elaborate. It's just a hypothesis. You can't let yourself believe in it" (page 132). Discuss the irony of Joe's remembering, moments later, what he's read about de Clerambault's syndrome.
11. At the moment before Clarissa first tells him it's over between them, Joe thinks about love, about how it "generates its own reserves." About how "conflicts, like living organisms, had a natural lifespan" (page 155). Later he notes that "...sustained stress is corrosive of feeling. It's the great deadener" (page 231). In light of what happens in this novel, in what ways is Joe right or wrong about this?
12. In both Amsterdam and Enduring Love, characters at a police station have faulty memories of events. Talk about the role of unreliable perceptions in this novel.
13. "It's like in banks. You never say money. Or in funeral parlors, no one says dead" (page 205). Though this is not a comic novel, the author uses observational humor throughout. Talk about other examples of humor in the novel.
14. The novel ends with the children and the river. What is the author saying with this choice?
15. In the appendixes, we're reminded (with Jed's letter) that "it is not always easy to accept that one of our most valued experiences may merge into psychopathology" (page 259). Is this true in your experience?
16. Why did the author choose to let us know that Joe and Clarissa reconciled (and adopted a child) with a line in a case study in the appendix?
"I am uncertain whether our civilization at this turn of the millennium is cursed by too much or too little belief, whether people like Bernard and June cause the trouble, or people like me."
Two young Communist Party members, June and Bernard, meet in London in 1946. They fall deeply and quickly in love. They marry. On their honeymoon in France, June has a life-altering experience, discovers religion, and ultimately renounces her allegiance to the party. Five years later, June and Bernard Tremaine separate, but they never divorce, and never become romantically involved with others. Belief waning more slowly, Bernard stays a party member until 1956.
McEwan introduces June and Bernard as young lovers. Readers meet them again some forty years later when their son-in-law, Jeremy, spends time with both June and Bernard as he interviews each of them for June's memoir. Jeremy himself becomes a character in this novel and in the mock memoir within it.
Religion versus rationality. Your memory versus mine. Love versus daily existence. Sacrificing an individual for the good of the masses. So goes Black Dogs. Set against the fall of the Berlin Wall, the novel travels back in time to Europe after World War II and shows how that war and its demons changed the path of one family. Metaphorically and literally, the black dogs of the title roam the landscape of this novel--Europe and the Tremaine family.
Questions for Discussion
1. The narrator, Jeremy, sets himself up in the preface as the pole opposite June and Bernard. He says that they have too much belief and he has too little. By the end of the novel, does Jeremy make a choice? Does he believe in something?
2. Whose story is this? June and Bernard's? Or Jeremy's?
3. Discuss the author's decision to use the mock memoir form to tell this story.
4. In both Black Dogs and Enduring Love, the author presents the conflict between emotion and rationality. In both cases, the women are on one side, the men on another. Is this a gender divide?
5. June and Bernard loved each other, but couldn't live a life together. June admits this and ponders how millions of people can be expected to get along when two people can't. Does this novel ultimately present a bleak view of life?
6. Bernard accuses June of sacrificing him and their children for a final, personal end. Do you agree that she did?
7. Talk about the titles of the author's novels--any that you've read. In what ways are they both a question and an answer?
8. June's confrontation with the black dogs is close to ten pages long (pages 119-127). Look at it closely and talk about how the author builds suspense and adds to the ominous tone of something important about to happen.
9. In the author's novels, moments of clarity, of certainty, or of important questions being asked or answered often take place in nature. Why do you think McEwan makes this choice?
10. Would Bernard and June have been able to continue to live together as a married couple if Bernard hadn't been busy examining a caterpillar during her confrontation with the black dogs?
11. Bernard feels the weight of the sadness in Europe late in the novel when he finally sees the war "not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust" (page 140). How does this relate to the Lao-tzu quotation earlier in the novel (page 13)?
12. Can a person be happy when evil exists in the world? Is this novel a warning to be on guard?
"He was not certain whether this time spent traveling between his two secret worlds was when he was truly himself, when he was able to hold the two in balance and know them to be separate from himself; or whether this was the one time he was nothing at all, a void traveling between two points."
Perhaps there is a time in everyone's life when he or she is completely engaged in love and work and feels the warm and welcome weight of all things good. Perhaps it is less a "time" and more a fleeting moment. For some the moment occurs in an unlikely setting--in a war-ravaged city, on a top-secret project. For Leonard Marnham in 1955 Berlin, one of McEwan's innocents, this is so. Twenty-five-year-old Leonard, a British citizen, has his time when he's sent to Berlin to work on a top-secret project, a joint effort between the British and the Americans. Once there, he finds himself caught between Americans and Germans, between the need for secrecy and the freedom and joy that his first love affair brings. He finds himself capable of killing a man and committing treason. In this suspenseful novel, McEwan shows us a man coming into existence, with all the contradiction and upheaval such an awakening can bring.
Questions for Discussion
1. Who are the innocents in this novel? Countries? Individuals?
2. In many ways, innocence is a state to be much desired. As such, do people and countries always pay a price for their innocence? Put another way, is loss of innocence, by its very nature, always painful?
3. At one point, Leonard describes Americans, noting, "He had seen grown men drinking chocolate milk...they were innocent....They had these secrets and they had their chocolate milk" (page 187). Talk about the difference between the British and the Americans in this novel.
4. Glass tells Leonard, "[E]verybody thinks he has the final story. You only hear of a higher level at the moment you're being told about it" (page 16). Discuss this as a key to the novel.
5. Early in the novel, Glass says that it is secrets that make us conscious, that make us individuals, summing up, "Secrecy made us possible" (page 44). Talk about this as a theme in the novel.
6. Leonard helps kill a man, but it is in his near rape of Maria that his state of mind is truly malevolent. Is state of mind, more than actions, a barometer of guilt?
7. Discuss the logic in Maria's statement, after she and Leonard have killed Otto, "[I]f we are going to lie, if we are going to pretend things, then we must do it right" (page 186). Is morality an absolute?
8. Near the end, Leonard longs to tell his story, confess his guilt, and explain the step-by-step progression that led to dismembering Otto. Maria does do this and in not telling Leonard of her confession, she is loyal to Glass, not Leonard. Is it this betrayal that keeps them apart?
9. Talk about the end of the novel, and about Leonard's wish to come back to Berlin with Maria before the Wall is torn down. Will he get to Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Will they return to Berlin together?
In a 1987 interview in Publishers Weekly, Ian McEwan said, "[W]hen you love someone, it's not uncommon to measure that love by fantasizing about his absence. You gauge things by their opposite." In McEwan's works, the opposite is a theme. His characters may take action that seems opposite to all sorts of things, their best interests, their lovers, their friends, their morals, or their political, religious, or rationalist beliefs. This is the tension and the story. And it is this, along with his acute and beautifully written observations about the opposites that infuse our lives, that keep readers waiting for the next McEwan novel.
McEwan is the author of two short-story collections, First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets, and eight novels: The Cement Garden; The Comfort of Strangers, short-listed for the 1981 Booker Prize; The Child in Time, winner of the 1987 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award; The Innocent; Black Dogs; The Daydreamer; Enduring Love; and Amsterdam, winner of the 1998 Booker Prize.
Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart
Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid's Tale
Brontë, Charlotte, Jane Eyre
Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee, The Mistress of Spices
Forster, E. M., A Passage to India
Golding, William, Lord of the Flies
Greene, Graham, The Power and the Glory
Hardy, Thomas, Jude the Obscure
James, Henry, The Turn of the Screw
Kafka, Franz, The Trial
Lao-tzu, The Way of Tao
McEwan, Ian, The Cement Garden
McEwan, Ian, The Comfort of Strangers
McEwan, Ian, First Love, Last Rites
McEwan, Ian, In Between the Sheets
Mason, Bobbie Ann, In Country
Spark, Muriel, Memento Mori
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