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Sweet Tooth rewards re-reading, not reading

A novel that is at once “naive” and “tricksy”.

Sweet Tooth
Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, 336pp, £18.99

Ian McEwan, though he has travelled far from the themes of First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978), yet continues to make use of the lessons in craft and manipulation he learned as a writer of short stories. McEwan’s latest novel is a riddle, or perhaps a joke, in which a number of baffling, even boring, elements are clarified and justified by a final flourish. It rewards rereading, but not reading.

The narrator is Serena Frome, who recalls at four decades’ distance her brief career as a spy. Although her degree was in mathematics, Serena was known by her employers to be an insatiable reader, and her first mission involved the recruitment of a young writer and academic, Tom Haley, to the project known as Sweet Tooth, which involved the distribution of funds, through respectable conduits and without the recipients’ collusion, to writers in one way or another critical of the Soviet Union.

A minor character explains that “promising” is “a standard description for any young writer”, but Serena genuinely finds Tom’s short stories exciting. Soon after meeting, they embark on an affair.

Sweet Tooth contains a certain amount of reflection on reading and writing, offered in the form of an ongoing argument between Serena and Tom which follows to an almost caricatural degree McEwan’s well-established version of the male-female dynamic. Serena recalls that she “didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases”; Tom has to teach her how to read slowly and to show her that Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop” is a war poem, even though, as Serena points out, it “doesn’t mention a war”. The couple disagree about modern fiction “at every turn”, and always for crass, gender-essentialist reasons. “I thought his lot were too dry,” Serena writes of their favoured authors, “he thought mine were too wet.” And she recalls: “During that time, we managed to agree on only one short novel . . . William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in the Secret Sea. He thought it was beautifully formed, I thought it was wise and sad.”

Not all of the titles that McEwan invokes serve their intended purpose. Tom praises Muriel Spark’s novel The Driver’s Seat and Serena replies that she “found it too schematic and preferred The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. As examples of Spark in her burlesque-Gothic mode (1959-63) and Spark in her nouveau romanmode (1968-71), the titles are well chosen, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would scarcely appeal to a reader who, in Serena’s words, “liked life as I knew it re-created on the page”. As early as the 1950s, in her first novel, The Comforters, and the story “The Portobello Road”, Spark was exhibiting adherence to the “male” belief that, as Tom puts it, “it wasn’t possible to re-create life on the page without tricks”. It is an example not of sloppiness on McEwan’s part, but of tidiness that he posits the two novels as chalk and cheese, rather than as showing chalkish characteristics to different intensity.

One thing that can be revealed here without doing much damage is that Sweet Tooth represents an attempt on McEwan’s part to write a novel that would appeal to both Tom and Serena – a novel that is at once “naive” and “tricksy”, that pulls off a closing “fictional trick” but does not, as Serena would put it, dishonour the “unwritten contract” between reader and writer, or dissolve the foundations of the “imagined world”. It is knowing without being exactly postmodern. Another way of describing it is that McEwan is trying to resolve the conflict between humanism and post - modernism, a project that puts him in the company of Spark, A S Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Philip Roth and Martin Amis, all of whom receive a name-check (Amis playing a small role offstage), as well as that of writers whom Tom and Serena would have to wait a while to read, such as Paul Auster, Jonathan Coe, Philip Hensher, Orhan Pamuk, Peter Carey and Jeffrey Eugenides, not a few of whom have stolen his thunder.

Ample precedent has taught this reader not to trust McEwan’s books any further than one can throw them (the thicker ones tend to be sneakier). His every sentence seems capable of slipping its skin to expose another, or of changing colour when seen in a different light. Lines that look innocent or dull turn out to have been tip-offs, or puns pitched too high for first-time readers. That is certainly the case here, and even those who can guess what the author is up to won’t be able to track all of the ramifications.

Once you have finished kicking yourself, you begin to modify your sense of the book. Sweet Tooth is a triumph of the most negative possible kind, a novel that turns out to have been tiresome for a good reason – for instance, there’s a credible explanation for the Maconieish allusions to cultural and political highlights (“the domestic crisis, the Middle East, Vietnam”; “Croissants were a novelty in England then”). But some of the oddities survive a second reading. The gender stereotyping is reinforced by the ending, not unpicked by it. Nothing in the scheme of the novel requires McEwan to describe both the Uefa Cup and the Booker Prize as “newfangled”, nor to use, within the space of a single paragraph, the phrases “His poor naked foot like a worn-out old shoe . . . the old were a separate species, like sparrows or foxes . . . like a room-forgrowth blazer . . . like an old paperback . . . like a swimming-pool attendant”.

Christopher Ricks once praised as typical of McEwan a sentence from The Comfort of Strangers (1981): “He loved her, though not at this particular moment.” Nowadays he is more likely to commit sentences that resemble Stewart Lee’s parody of Dan Brown (“The famous man picked up the red cup”): “I waited on a hard chair set down for me by a mutely disapproving secretary in a dim corridor with a concrete floor.” The patient, well-tended style of his early-late period is pocked by just about every unquestioned trait of contemporary Anglo- American prose fiction – a belief in the indispensability of solid, not to say exhaustive, scene-setting and visual description being only the most prominent, baffling and stale.

But just as the novel’s page-by-page frailties are not entirely effaced by the ending, so its pleasures are not reduced to it. Some elements retain a relative autonomy. McEwan is sincerely, and not just strategically, interested in the early 1970s, and he gets a lot into his portrait of the age – sex, money, politics, cuisine, journalism, literature. He can be very savvy about the effect that cultural changes have on private conduct, as when Serena realises that her new-woman’s openness to male sensitivity caused her to overlook a boyfriend’s homosexuality: “If I’d been a little more old-fashioned in my thinking, I would have guessed it, for there was a time when every man’s sexual problem had only one cause.”

And even though they are not fully com - prehensible until the final chapter, the novel offers small surprises and reversals along the way. It seems that McEwan is telling a story about spying and amatory subterfuge, both of them involving clandestinity and deceit, but this is itself a kind of front for another interest altogether, the combination of the need for “artifice” and a desire to be “plausible” being central to both espionage and fiction-writing.

The only more or less trustworthy indication of McEwan’s intentions for the book come from the epigraph – “If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person”, Timothy Garton Ash,The File – and certainly nothing in either the novel that you think you are reading, or in the one that you discover you have read, makes good on such high rhetoric, with its promise of moral danger or personal tragedy at the one hand, regret and disappointment on the other. “Nothing strange or terrible happened to me during my first eighteen years and that is why I’ll skip them”, Serena writes on the second page, but nothing strange or terrible happens to her after that. There’s little at stake in this novel, even once we know what the real stakes are.

McEwan has always liked to “make a tidy finish”, as Briony Tallis puts it at the end of Atonement, but as a taste or tendency, it’s hardly to his credit. The tidy finish, as McEwan works it, is one that tidies up everything and renders the novel a narrowly teleological form, reducing the constituent parts to the status of means to an end (so to speak). McEwan has always shown logistical habits in his working out of scenarios, as he acknowledges in the descriptions of Tom’s stories, one of which hinges on probability, but he puts too much faith in the rational when sets about constructing a whole novel – themes, imagery, characters – in the same terms. (Michael Wood, a McEwan admirer, hit on something central and damning when he said of a passage in The Innocent that “we are too busy with our admiration (or irritation) to attend to other feelings”.)

It would be pointless at this stage to complain that Ian McEwan doesn't possess much in the way of exuberance or spontaneity – it’s an absence rather than a lack – but in Sweet Tooth, he seems content to achieve rather too little with the qualities he does possess. There’s no question that the novel is “cleverly managed”, as Serena writes of a deception carried out by an old boyfriend, and a handsome success in its own terms. But when a novel misleads the reader on purpose or by design, it had better be for a higher purpose or a grand design, and Sweet Tooth finally belongs not with those McEwan works in which cleverness is just one among many evident qualities but with those works – Amsterdam prime among them – in which, by making a fetish and spectacle of his virtuosity, he makes of it a vice as well.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?