Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan used to be a buzzsaw, but he's mellowed over the past decade or so, book by book, and Sweet Tooth is his softest and quietest novel yet, perhaps driven by his heroine, Serena Frome. McEwan clearly wants us all to know that Serena does not have a top-flight intellect -- and there may be a buried intellectual argument in her intense love of novels, particularly those by mid-century British women writers -- and so he has first-person narrator Serena tell us so, and then demonstrate it, over and over throughout this fairly short novel. Serena is not so much unreliable as reliably dim -- not dumb, in any sense of the word, but not nearly as smart as (McEwan implies) she should be, or as smart as those around her. Not nearly as smart as  McEwan, or his fictional stand-in here, certainly.

Serena thought she was smart -- she had that typical smart-kid childhood, where she was better at math than anyone in her school (and better than several of her teachers) but then went to Cambridge, where she soon found she wasn't that smart. And if she'd been allowed, or allowed herself, to read English there, she might have found congenial minds and read her way into work she really could do well. But, instead, she parlayed a third-class maths degree and a hastily-ended affair with an ex-spook teacher into an entry-level position at MI5, Britain's internal-espionage division, in the early '70s immediately after her graduation.

Serena doesn't tell us all of this explicitly, but McEwan makes it clear what her real assets were: she was very pretty, and very amenable, girlish and quiet and deeply conventional. The era when women in offices were meant to be primarily decorative might have been falling apart elsewhere, but government bureaus are very conservative, and secret ones even more so. As at university, Serena was intellectually outclassed at work, with even her best friend clearly more accomplished and savvy (though less pretty) than she was.

And so Serena found her niche, perhaps being shoved into it, out of spite or pique or a misplaced magnanimity, by Maximilian Greatorex, a young man who is her superior -- pointedly her superior, though joining the service at the same time she did, primarily because he was a man -- and was, briefly, her boyfriend. And that niche was a bland, minor operation called "Sweet Tooth," in which MI5 secretly bankrolled the careers of a number of politically appropriate writers, early in their careers, to bolster the case of anti-Communism, particularly on the left. The CIA had been doing the same thing in Europe for a couple of decades by that point, and the British service apparently though it was time to get into the act -- but to do it slowly, carefully, and in a small way, with stipends running through respectable front organizations to a bunch of nonfiction writers mostly concerned with the rotten conditions behind the Iron Curtain.

But the writer for whom Serena would be the main contact was an outlier: short-fiction writer Thomas Healy, who was not quite as reliably anti-communist, but who was the result of a compromise high up in MI5. The outlines of the program aren't clear to Serena -- either because they were never explained entirely to her, or because McEwan is keeping her dim in this as well -- but it seems likely that someone realized that the most influential and well-known writers of each generation are its novelists, and so they should probably try to snag one of those, if they could. So Serena is sent off as the representative of a front organization, to put Healy on the taxpayer's payroll secretly.

Of course Serena falls in love with Tom; of course they fall into an affair. When a middle-aged novelist writes the story of a gorgeous, not-as-smart-as-she-should be young woman who meets a young writer much like he was at the same time, he's always going to have her fall into bed with him. And, since this is still Ian McEwan, no matter how mellow he may have become, Serena's lies and misrepresentations will surface to cause trouble.

But this is the new-model McEwan: instead of the expected bleak ending there's instead something with quite a lot of hope and possibility in it -- it's not a crisp, specific ending though, but instead a choice, an open ending that could recast the entire novel if we let it. I do have to wonder what the McEwan of 1972, the McEwan who was thinking of and writing the stories that would become First Loves, Last Rites, would have thought of Sweet Tooth, if he could have read it without knowing who wrote it. I have a suspicion his opinion would not have been positive -- but, then, can any of us live up to the ideals of our younger selves?

Sweet Tooth is pleasant but, ironically, lacking in the bite that McEwan's best work had: it notes and points at rather than investigating and attacking, it wanders and ambles rather than stalking. As the title suggests, this book is uncharacteristically sweet, and not stronger for that.

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