Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan


Writers, spies, and a polite postmodern twist – Ian McEwan’s new novel, Sweet Tooth, tries to have it all

Back in 1997, when I first read Ian McEwan as part of my first-year English Literature class, something odd had happened. Our lecturer told us we wouldn’t lose marks if we didn’t read or attend tutorials on The Child in Time, McEwan’s 1987 novel. At the time this somehow added to the faint air of the counter-cultural the author enjoyed (I was an unworldly undergrad, but I still knew McEwan was one of the “bad boys” of contemporary fiction). The real reason for sidelining McEwan was more prosaic: in 1997, The Child in Time was out of print.

It seems extraordinary now that the author of the Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam, and the not-prizewinning-yet-rather-more-deserving Atonement and Enduring Love, should have fallen between the cracks. These days a new McEwan is a big deal – not for nothing was Private Eye able to satirise those mid-year “What I’m reading on my holidays” newspaper columns by having each high- to low-brow interviewee pick Sweet Tooth: “I haven’t read it yet, but I’m told it’s a masterpiece.”

Interestingly, though, 1997 marks, with hindsight, the end of one phase of McEwan’s career, and Enduring Love, published that year, the commencement of what we might call his mature phase (I was hooked, incidentally: McEwan was the first contemporary author I really fell in love with). The grubby, out-to-shock short stories of First Love, Last Rites, and the superficial investigations/ exploitations of taboos in his novels The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers gave way to more considered, slow-burning novels about somewhat more rounded or recognisable people – middle-class people, runs the current criticism, suggesting that McEwan, the enfant terrible, the first graduate of the now much-imitated but in 1978 groundbreaking Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, had in some way “sold out”, joining the social class he’d once enjoyed undermining with exposés of their peccadilloes and dirty secrets.

In Sweet Tooth, we see the intriguing result of the mature McEwan revisiting the world of McEwan junior, in a book which mixes Le Carré-esque Home Counties spy narrative (he tried this once before, in 1990’s The Innocent, a book he claims “only about 20 people read”) with a gently postmodern-tinged structure of the sort McEwan, nominally a “realist” rather than an “experimental” author, has generally eschewed; even when the inexplicable happens in The Child in Time, the actual narrative is not seeking to deceive the reader, which is not the case here.

Sweet Tooth is set in the mid-1970s. We follow Serena Frome, a graduate in Mathematics from Cambridge University, as she is recruited by MI5. Initially she’s just doing an office clerk’s job, but when her bosses discover her love of reading, they ask her to read the short stories of a young author, T.H. (Tom) Haley and then to recruit him – secretly – into a British Intelligence scheme. Through a “front” charity, Freedom International, MI5 will pay Haley a stipend to keep him producing material which will support their aims: he might be persuaded to “‘talk publicly about writers in prison in Castro’s Cuba’”, as a superior of Serena suggests, or “‘spare a moment for his hard-pressed fellows in the Eastern bloc’”.

This operation – codenamed SweetTooth – may seem implausible, but owes a great deal to a genuine historical effort by the CIA, during the Cold War, to use literature to help undermine Communism (as detailed exhaustively in Frances Stonor Saunders’ history Who Paid the Piper?). It’s a fascinating, bizarre “secret history”, and touching in the way it sets off the threat of nuclear annihilation against what now seems a very innocent and rather sweet belief in the power of literature to change minds.

We’re a third of the way into Sweet Tooth before Serena receives her assignment. What’s come before might be seen as a kind of normalising; we’re being helped to feel we “know” Serena completely, from her somewhat antagonistic relationship with her bishop father and her mother, “the quintessence, or parody, of a vicar’s then a bishop’s wife”, to the intimate details of the affair she has with a professor, and whose abrupt end catapults her into working for MI5. The reason it’s important to establish all this backstory, which is not strictly relevant to the apparent plot of the novel, and even risks boring the reader (I found myself reading this avidly enough but wondering exactly why it was necessary), will become clear.

Before Serena meets Haley, she does her research, and so the reader is made privy to some of the short stories he has produced. I’m a sucker for stories-within-stories, and the summaries we see – the story of a man who falls in love with a shop-window mannequin, as per McEwan’s own “Dead As They Come”; a bleak tale of survivors making their way through a post-apocalyptic city, which recalls McEwan’s story “Two Fragments”, as well as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – are among Sweet Tooth’s great pleasures. They’re also self-referential without totally rehashing McEwan’s own stories; the general tenor of insular misfits caught up in bizarre and unseemly situations is absolutely that found in First Love, Last Rites. There’s more: “‘It was completely implausible’,” rages one of Serena’s superiors, of the mannequin story. “‘Anyone that deluded would be in the secure wing of a psychiatric institution’” – which neatly skewers some critical reaction to those early McEwan stories.

The rest of the book unfolds rather more predictably: of course, Serena and Haley begin an affair, putting Serena in an uncomfortable moral predicament; after that, it’s only a matter of time before Haley learns where his stipend actually comes from and who Serena is; Serena is abandoned first by her employers, appalled at her blowing the gaff on their scheme, and then by Haley, returning to his rooms to find he has moved out and left no trace of his belongings – except a letter.

The twist follows in the final chapter, which relates the content of that letter, and can be guessed in advance. Given the mining of his own “back catalogue” McEwan’s done for the Haley character, it’s unsurprising that he turns the fiction around on itself, revealing that Serena’s story has been told by Haley all along – this is his fictive rendering of his lover’s past; the reasons she came to work for MI5 and the whole Sweet Tooth mission itself have been Haley’s narrative, and at the end of it, he offers a choice to the “real” Serena who has betrayed him: a character, we realise, we have never even met.

The fervent admiration I once had for the postmodern and experimental has diminished over the years; to that callow undergraduate, the New Novel of the 60s and its successors seemed the most important literature imaginable (that said, one of the reasons I enrolled on the UEA course myself, as a postgrad, was that it had the very non-experimental McEwan imprimatur). In a book about writing and about stories, it would be almost disappointing were there not a “literary” twist, but McEwan’s take on self-reflexive tricksiness is mild – a sort of M&S ready meal version of the kind of experimental novel which dismantles itself as it goes.  There’s nothing here to frighten the horses; fans of Robert Coover, John Barth, et al, will find little to surprise them. More problematically, I felt the twist was a way for McEwan to let himself off the hook in certain ways; I didn’t find Serena’s first-person narration unconvincingly “female” (unlike, for instance, Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar, “cross-writing” at its most effortful and unconvincing) but could imagine that being a criticism which the revelation that this is Haley’s work, not Serena’s, essentially defuses: of course it doesn’t really “sound” like a woman’s voice – that’s one of the clues!

Sweet Tooth is a fairly light novel, for McEwan; it resembles an episode of a long-running TV drama in which a celebration in the “real” world – an anniversary, for instance – is mirrored in a self-indulgent instalment of the show. The air of some celebratory runaround is boosted by the inclusion of celebrity cameo appearances by Tom Maschler and both Kingsley and Martin Amis. Not just a book about writers and writing, it’s a book about McEwan writing. Well, fine: the twelfth novel from arguably the UK’s most popular literary author; why not enjoy a bit of a victory run?

It’d be stretching a point to say I didn’t enjoy Sweet Tooth – at this stage in his career, McEwan’s prose and story-telling ability are so refined, so crystal, that I was swept, almost despite myself, through the novel in a couple of sittings. But one of McEwan’s great strengths is his characterisation, and by pulling the rug out from beneath his own characters here – to make the act of characterisation a metafictional ruse – I feel he’s selling himself short.