Sweet Tooth on Edge
I suspect that each of us wishes to pick up a book without being overly prejudiced one way or another about its worth. True, there is little hope of approaching a favorite author without positive expectations. A Booker prize winner is likely to have the same effect. But what happens when an author who is both a favorite and a prize winner publishes a work that you know has been negatively received by critics you admire? How do you give that book a fair reading? Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Sweet Tooth, has provoked mixed reactions. The day before I started to read it, I heard an off-putting analysis on NPR that slated the work for its attitude, implied and stated, to women. The critic admitted that she felt this way despite being a fan of McEwan’s other fiction. I also read comments about the risks he courted in using the spy/thriller genre and on the surprising twist in the plot, close to the novel’s close, that was reminiscent of a similar ploy in the writer’s Atonement. Christopher Ricks, in the latest NYRB, wrote a canny and teasing epistolary response, more send-up than put-down.
I was certainly not un-prejudiced as a found myself easily led by the tale, seduced you might say, by its plot and fluent prose. The first person narrator, a twentyish daughter of a bishop, Serena Frome, pronounced as “plume,” studies Mathematics at Cambridge. She is also prepared and then recruited as an agent for MI5 (in the late sixties) by a university tutor who is also her lover. He gives her the historical education necessary for her future role. Her first active assignment has her posing as a literary agent for a foundation whose secret aim is to promote Western values as deterrent to Soviet idealism. Serena is successful, beyond expectations. She not only finds the promising novelist, Tom Haley, (an alter McEwan) required for the project, but she also falls in love with him and he with her. She sponsors his successful career.
Her deception and the suspect nature of her lover’s success ground the conflict. She is both in love with and “running” her author. As a sub-plot there is an awkward relationship with a fellow spy who is Serena’s immediate superior. He in turn forces the novel to its climax.
We sit in with Serena on various meetings with those in the upper echelons of MI5, and McEwan indulges us with some humorous institutional satire. We have to ask if these men are really Cold Warriors? Her own life in London is ably sketched along with her infrequent returns to her family and her meetings with her father, The Bishop. So far, so believable. Realism’s illusion prevails, as does conformity to conventional spy dramas.
There are of course inevitable post-modern ploys: Serena reads some of Tom’s stories and recounts them in digest form in the tale; these recall specific early McEwan pieces. The themes of the stories mirror the central tensions of the larger plot and these parallels are noted in a letter from Tom to Serena. Her mathematical background has her pose for Tom a “counter intuitive” solution to a problem. Serena has the distinct psychological advantage in terms of her superior mathematical skills: she has the power in a relationship that she also controls through deception. Her comeuppance is inevitable, indeed announced on the first page.
Crisis arrives, Serena’s cover appears to be blown, and the novel heads to its peculiar resolution. This occurs through a narrative sleight of hand that depends in turn on a suspension of disbelief that to me threatens the whole work. When a novel thrusts its artifice at the reader and lays on it the burden of character and technical climax, then we have to ask about the tone of the author towards his audience. McEwan is far too skilled a writer to do a patch work job at resolving his plot. That the novel has such an ending seems to signal a great deal about the writer’s regard for his readers. Are we simply being admitted to the great game of story-telling?
Yet, there are so many things to enjoy about the book. The suppleness of the writing and the recreation of the not-too-distant English past make the novel an engaging read. Even the mathematical problem Serena sets for Tom is based on the old TV show hosted by Monty Hall, and gives a reader pleasurable pause in understanding the logic of the solution. Yet I still come away with the sense that I have been involved in an authorial scam, manipulated in a way that is unsettling. Is the work one of authorial bravado or condescension?
Now all of this relates to the prejudicial comments that I could not avoid hearing or reading before I began the book. Admitting that this is so does little to help evaluate my own judgment. I suppose I would like to hear the opinion of others.