In Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, two old friends Clive and Vernon meet at the funeral of Molly, the former lover of both. Clive is a composer struggling to finish a symphony and Vernon is an editor of a failing newspaper.

They ruminate over Molly’s swift decline. “The speed of her descent into madness and pain became a matter of common gossip: the loss of control of bodily function and with it all sense of humor, and then the tailing off into vagueness interspersed with episodes of ineffectual violence and muffled shrieking.”

When Clive begins to think he is losing his faculties, he meets with Vernon and together they agree to assist each other when the time comes call it quits. Their pact takes on an urgency when Clive finds himself unable to finish his symphony and Vernon is sacked from his editorship for publishing compromising photos of the current foreign minister.

They fly to Amsterdam for the premier of Clive’s never-to-be performed symphony. The two have become bitter enemies: Clive is appalled that Vernon published the scandalous photos and Vernon is shocked by Clive’s failure to help a woman being attacked during a hike he was taking in the Lake District.

At a reception for the members of the orchestra, Clive and Vernon end up drinking champagne laced with a deadly powder they have obtained from euthanasia group in the Netherlands.

Amsterdam, the winner of the 1998 Booker Prize, opens at a funeral and the specter of death and suicide hovers over the novel. Yet it is also dense with McEwan’s typical interests, as well as his talent in writing about them: the pleasures of walking the Scottish highlands, the joy of music, the collapse of “human project.”

When the definitive histories of twentieth-century music in the West came to be written, the triumphs would be seen to belong to blues, jazz, rock and the continually evolving traditions of folk music

…it was easy for Clive to think of civilization as the sum of all the arts, along with design, cuisine, good wine and the like. But now it appeared that this was what it really was—square miles of meager modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the television… roads and the tyranny of traffic.

The moral and creative failures of Clive and Vernon move the novel to its calamitous conclusion. In one-way or another the clock is ticking for everyone and McEwan offers up this advice:

monitor you own decline; then, when it was no longer possible to work, or to live with dignity, finish it yourself.