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Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan


23rd December 2012


This isn’t quite a case of being delighted when a long-standing personal hero proves that they’ve Still Got It. But it’s close. I wouldn’t describe McEwan as a “hero” – why can’t I ever think of a novelist in that way when I can easily think of poets and musicians who fulfil that role for me? But McEwan is very much a writer I admire. For me, he’s the greatest British novelist still writing who has been around for more than 25 years and thus has a significant back catalogue behind him. His achievement feels all the greater when you draw two columns and set his recent work against that of Martin Amis, his closest rival. Of late – and I mean since “The Information” in the late 1990s – Amis’ work has been on a firmly downward spiral. “Yellow Dog” was spluttering, confused. Without Amis’ name on the cover it’s hard to imagine how it would have found a publisher. Worse was to come, though. His most recent novel, “The Pregnant Widow” was, for me, execrable. Supposedly a long-view take on the sexual revolution of the 70s (i.e. the real sexual revolutionary period – not the 60s) it came across as nothing more than the tired and slightly creepy reverie of an old, old man. And it wasn’t funny. Age has withered him.

McEwan seems to have weathered the passage of time better. I didn’t buy into the adulation poured onto “Atonement” – it felt like he was trying to break out of his usual settings and concerns and, in doing so, discovering that there’s no place like home. The epic-historical canvas of the Second World War that “Atonement” had no choice but to step onto, somewhat grudgingly, felt like a limitation for McEwan. His novels since then have returned – not retreated – to the uncomfortable intimacies of claustrophobic relationships, a sense of entrapment. The ‘messiness’ of a naïve beginning to married life in “On Chesil Beach” played brilliantly to McEwan’s strengths as a writer who presents innocence as only ever being an invitation to chaos and self-destruction. Innocence warrants punishment in McEwan’s work – it’s almost a criminal act. In “Saturday” and “Solar” he returned to an abiding (almost pathological) concern of his: that to be English, middle-class and ‘professional’ is a deadly trinity of hubris for which the universe will gladly arrange a suitable and excruciating punishment. “Solar” varied the formula through introducing some welcome touches of blackly-gleaming farce into McEwan’s world, where it always feels like a perfectly calculated moment of violence is always about to be delivered. Probably by John Lewis.

The same foundation applies in his most recent novel, “Sweet Tooth”, which I would rank alongside the best of his other novels such as “Enduring Love” and “The Innocent” – novels with titles that could probably be used interchangeably for any of his works. The title here is also a way into the book with its suggestion of both a childlike appetite and an indulgence that will only result in decay and destruction.

The novel is set in 1972 and is told to us by Serena Frome (which “rhymes with plume”, we are reliably assured on the first page.) Serena sketches in quickly her comfortable childhood as the daughter of an Anglican bishop. A precocious child, she progresses to Cambridge to read Maths whilst also, because of an insatiable reading habit, being drawn into mildly right-on journalism for the kind of mildly right-on literary magazine anyone who has ever been to Cambridge, and read a book whilst there, has also written for.

Towards the end of her time as an undergraduate she is recruited into MI5 by an academic called Canning – who also becomes her father-confessor and her lover. The hand-on-the-shoulder quiet recruitment of students by the intelligence services is as much a part of the iconography of Oxbridge as punting and black-tie balls, and the sense of Serena’s youthful excitement at being drawn into two parallel secret worlds at the same time is well rendered. When the affair comes to a bitter end, Serena leaves Cambridge to take up what turns out to be a glorified secretarial position within MI5. The secret service world portrayed here is much closer to John le Carre’s depiction of a drab, paper-shuffling provincial insurance firm with occasional backstabbing of an entirely literal kind than it is to James Bond fantasies of high-stakes espionage set against a glamorous backdrop. As with the Cambridge section of the novel, this world is well set up and explored. It’s one in which there’s another kind of Cold War – an almost acknowledged one – between the Oxford dons manqué who run the security services, with their fixed, unquestionable view of the world, and pretty much everyone else. ‘Everyone else’ counts as some kind of Enemy Alien. As both a woman and a young person, Serena counts double in this respect. Her intelligence – which includes a strong capacity for manipulation as well as academic ability – finds very little outlet. She is expected to know her place. As one of her colleagues – also a young woman – points out, when they are one day required to go out into the field and base themselves in an MI5 safe house, their mission is to ensure the place gets a good clean: “Our bloody cover. Cleaning ladies pretending to be cleaning ladies!”

Yet Serena does find an entry to something which approximates her – and perhaps our – idea of what spying means. She is selected to take part in an operation codenamed “Sweet Tooth”, through which the general left-leaningness of writers and artists in general, which constitutes a troubling front in the Cold War, is to be challenged through the identification and “encouragement” of writers and artists who offer an opposing and less bien pensant stance, ideologically. Serena is chosen to act as the representative of a fictitious Foundation which wants to sponsor an upcoming young writer and academic, Tom Haley.

Within the novel, any objection the reader might feel to this admittedly vague scheme is swiftly dealt with. McEwan points out how the CIA pretty much did this through its covert funding of projects like “Encounter” magazine, which offered a staunchly libertarian agenda throughout its existence. Serena is chosen for the mission because of her voracious reading appetite – though, significantly as it turns out, she is someone who can read a lot but perhaps without great skill. This is her innocence – she is an “innocent reader” and the novel now turns upon what the fashionable literary critical terminology – the kind of thing Serena missed out on at Cambridge through reading Maths rather than English – would call a “crisis of interpretation.”

Serena tries to get to know Haley through reading his work. The question of the degree to which a writer’s life and views can be understood through what they write is a vexed question that all English undergraduates are expected to wrestle with and imagine they have an answer to. In some sense, McEwan is offering an answer to this from the other side of the equation – the writer’s. Serena perhaps makes the wrong choices. Perhaps. The novel is quite subtle, as it turns out, on this point. In many ways, the crux of the novel is in the parallel drawn between being a spy and being a (serious) reader. Both activities involve the paranoid hunting-down of hidden messages, the belief that the surface of the text is only that. And if that’s what Serena is doing, through trying to read Tom Haley through reading his work, what does that mean for us, reading her? Reading is a form of surveillance activity. We should know. We’re reading Serena’s account of herself. Do we always believe her, though?

And even more than that, Serena’s “mistake” – if it is a mistake to see the artist in the work – is brilliantly re-enforced through Tom Haley being a deliberately lightly disguised version of Ian McEwan himself. If you’re reading this, it’s pretty unlikely you are going to miss this. McEwan works hard – and seems to enjoy himself – in making sure this identification all but leaps out of the book like a cheap 3D effect. As was true of McEwan in the early 70s, Haley is a trendy academic at a “new” university where, as Serena sniffily notes, there are poncey quotations from poncey French/German philosophers, and unbearably right-on Black Panthers posters, tacked to the charmless, breeze-block walls: such a contrast with her beloved and ‘proper’ Cambridge.

The likeness between McEwan and Haley extends well beyond a few biographical and physical details. Serena relates detailed accounts of Haley’s short stories – so, we almost read his fiction through watching Serena read it. The stories tread exactly the same ground as the cocksure, disturbing short fiction with which McEwan made his in the early 70s, in collections such as “In Between The Sheets” and “First Love, Last Rites”. The stories are beguiling – for Serena and also for the reader watching over her shoulder. They portray relationships undone by mistrust and surveillance – characters undone by the realisation of how much they have lied to themselves as much as they have been lied to by others. They also, like many of McEwan’s early stories, delight in taking a tour of various kinds of sexual weirdnesses, such as a man who conceives an unquenchable obsession for a shop window dummy. At times, there is a distinct pleasure in sensing the older McEwan spoofing his tyro younger self. Some of McEwan’s actual stories are referenced in Serena’s account of reading Haley’s works. Real-life figures such as Martin Amis are given walk-on parts. So, if Serena makes the mistake of thinking she “gets” Haley through reading his work, we’re caught in much the same offside trap because of the impossibility of not seeing McEwan within this novel. Belief in “The Biographical Fallacy” gets harder to maintain. But what exactly is McEwan’s game in doing this? The reader is forced into a surveillance act on a writer parallel with Serena’s reading of Haley.

The way I’ve put it, this sounds utterly up its own metafictional arse. The fact that it’s not is part of what is fantastically satisfying about this book. You’re aware of the literary game-playing but this never consumes the novel – largely because Serena’s voice is so compelling on the page (a partial innocent – so certain of some matters, so deluded about others) and also because there is real momentum in the plot. As well as writing a literary novel set within the genre world of spy thrillers, McEwan has written a novel which, if not quite a spy thriller, does at least honestly engage with the pleasures of suspense. There’s more than a passing nod to John le Carre and I mean that as high praise.

Once Serena meets Haley in person, a relationship between the two quickly develops. Serena becomes a kind of double-agent, continuing to lie to Haley about the ‘Foundation’ which wants to fund his work purely because of its artistic merit, and lying to her intelligence service bosses about her involvement with Haley being purely professional. And lying to herself, of course. She thinks she is in love with Haley but it seems more that she is intoxicated through the opportunity to play at being the Muse to an artist she believes she has come to know from the ‘inside’. She has what an “innocent” reader might wish for – the writer answers to her, directly. She imagines. As Britain grimly struggles through strikes and power cuts and 3 Day Weeks, Serena smugly imagines herself and Tom as having created a space outside real life in which they can indulge themselves in whatever way suits them. But who is really in charge of the story?

Inevitably, this has to collapse and watching the car-crash happen is, as always with McEwan, a scary pleasure. But what takes “Sweet Tooth” that bit further is a very simple, very beautiful, very elegant, very horrible twist which closes like a trap in the final pages. Obviously, there’s no way I’m going to say what this involves but the fact that it’s so simple (and it feels inevitable, in retrospect) whilst being unexpected (by me at any rate – maybe, like Serena, I’m not as perspicacious a reader as I like to think I am) gives the end of the novel real slap-in-the-face power. A good ending makes you re-read. This ending certainly does that. As I said at the start, seeing a writer you admire really deliver the goods after so many years in the game is something to feel good about. “Sweet Tooth” is probably the most compelling novel I read in 2012. It has a sleight-of-hand audacity that only a writer at the very height of his powers can get away with and functions equally brilliantly as a character-driven novel, a spy story, a romance and a story which investigates all those kinds of story-telling.

About aterribleoneforthebooks

I teach at Trinity School in South London. But when I'm not doing that, I like to read. Rather a lot. Once, years ago, I overheard my Dad describing me to someone as "A terrible one for the books". Hence the name.

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