I’ve never really known what to make of Ian McEwan. I often feel that I’m not quite clever enough to really grasp what he’s driving at. Actually Sweet Tooth shines a pretty bright light on this weakness, because like me, its narrator, Serena Frome, is a lazy reader.
I’ve said I was fast. The Way We Live Now in four afternoons lying on my bed! I could take in a block of text or a whole paragraph in one visual gulp. It was a matter of letting my eyes and thoughts go soft, like wax, to take the impression fresh off the page. To the irritation of those around me, I’d turn a page every few seconds with an impatient snap of the wrist. My needs were simple…. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them…. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between — I gave them all the same rough treatment.”
So is it any surprise that McEwan gives us a novel that Serena might have liked to read? Our girl is a Cambridge graduate in 1972 and the best way to describe her life is to say that she’s one of those anonymous girls pushing around carts full of files in a John Le Carré novel. Against the background of coal strikes, three-day weeks, cold and gloom and terrible malaise, Serena fumbles her way through a complicated Cold-War scheme of secretly supporting a novelist with government funds, in the hope that he will write anti-Communist literature. (“Sweet Tooth” is the name of the project, with its connotations of debased appetite.) Naturally she also becomes his lover. McEwan includes lots of samples of Tom Haley’s work, long enough to produce that weird reader’s whiplash when you get jerked from one narrative into another.
I began to get resentful. Serena (and I) prefer the absorptive tale. McEwan is more interested in playing with the uses of story-telling. After all… a spy novel? What is spying besides spinning falsehoods? “I wasn’t impressed,” Serena says, “by those writers… who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life…. So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent.”
And then, subtly, McEwan starts to sow some doubt about Serena’s perceptions. She reads situations wrong, misinterpreting remarks and glances and, of course, Tom’s writing. So by halfway through, Sweet Tooth is a novel about spying and narrative and fiction, recounted by an untrustworthy witness, and I’m getting a little dizzy.
But it got under my skin. I keep thinking about it, exploring the fun-house mirror effect, admiring (yes, admiring) McEwan‘s mastery and dexterity. The novel provides enough of what Serena and I like (“characters I could believe in…”) to keep me turning the pages, but providing a steady, wholesome dose of, heaven help me, ideas.