Ian McEwan Sweet Tooth Book Review: New Novel Walks a Familiar Path


Ian McEwan begins Sweet Tooth with an ominous epigraph taken from historian Timothy Garton Ash's book The File, an examination of the dossier on the then-young scholar kept by the East German secret police: "If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person." It is surprising to plunge subsequently into a strange kind of spy thriller centered not on covert intrigues against the Soviets, but rather on the world of British literary fiction in the 1970s. Serena Frome, a young, almost accidental recruit to MI5, spends most of her days in the office dealing with stultifying paperwork of the kind deemed appropriate for women in the service by their male superiors. But our protagonist has a voracious, if haphazard, taste for literature that leads the men in charge to assign her to an unlikely and somewhat comical project: discreetly funding writers who support liberal democracy — so discreetly that the writers themselves never even know they're being underwritten by the government. (The fact that the real-life CIA actually undertook similar projects as part of its "cultural Cold War" only heightens the absurdity.) The project's code name is "Sweet Tooth."

Under the pretense of working for an arts nonprofit, Frome is assigned to approach and manage a young writer named Tom Haley, who works as an English instructor at the University of Sussex and lives in Brighton. He's published some journalism, and a few short stories, which are condensed and relayed to us from Serena's perspective — a Scheherazade effect that lets us enjoy several conspicuously McEwan-like short stories in quick succession. Tom accepts, on the condition that he continues to liaise with Serena; unavoidably, they fall in love, forcing Serena to fret constantly about her deception. For a McEwan novel, there is an unusual number of sex scenes that do not end in catastrophe, and there is an unusual amount of lavishly heavy-handed period detail, though not both at the same time. 

(You should stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers.)

The Sweet Tooth mission begins to unravel when Tom writes a banally anti-capitalist dystopian novella that wins a major literary prize. MI5 orders Serena to cut Tom loose; she tries to find a way around it, but soon her identity is leaked to the press, and by the time she reaches his apartment, he's gone, leaving behind a package and a letter. The package contains an unpublished novel; the letter explains that he's known about her duplicity for months. Instead of exposing and leaving her, though, he decided to write about it — from her perspective. The resulting novel is, ostensibly, the very same book that we've just read. "I really believed that I could wrap the matter up between the covers of a book and write you out of my system," he explains. But "to recreate you on the page I had to become you and understand you (this is what novels demand), and in doing that, well, the inevitable happened. ... I still love you. No, that's not it. I love you more."

This last-minute diversion into the territory of metafiction will seem immediately familiar to anyone who has read McEwan's best-known novel, Atonement, which ends with a postscript in which one of its characters, Briony Tallis, reveals herself to be the author of the preceding historical fiction. Why is McEwan bothering to revisit this sleight-of-hand — recycling the novelistic move for which he is best-known (and by which many readers felt annoyed or even betrayed)? It served one purpose in Atonement, which took as its subjects the relationship of historical narrative to truth; the nature of memory and guilt; and the outer limits of fiction's moral power. But at first glance, Sweet Tooth appears more glib: less painstaking stylistically, simpler in terms of plot, a bagatelle capriciously blending espionage and literature — le Carré by way of Borges. Is this kind of self-reference a necessary technique in the narrative artist's repertoire? Or does it just deliver a quick, cheap, briefly mind-bending thrill?

A common complaint about recursive storytelling — books about books — is that it strips fiction of its relationship to the rest of the world, and therefore deprives it of its ethical relevance. When novels are ultimately about other novels and the experience of being a novelist, why bother reading them unless you're a novelist yourself (or a professor, or a critic)? This complaint verges on alleging narcissism — and even if we stop short of that, Sweet Tooth is undeniably fixated on the life of its author. (Its real-life author — McEwan — I should clarify.) It doesn't take much Googling to realize that Tom is the same age McEwan would have been in the early seventies; that Tom and McEwan both attended Sussex; that Tom's fiction is, in essence, reworked drafts of McEwan's own sketches (as he mentioned to David Robinson of The Scotsman in a recent interview). One of Tom's stories, about an atheist delivering the sermon of his identical twin brother, who is a vicar, has elements that resemble McEwan's 1997 novel Enduring Love; others seem to be stolen from McEwan's 1978 short story collection In Between the Sheets. "The novel is a muted and distorted autobiography," McEwan told Rachel Cooke of The Observer, "though unfortunately a beautiful woman never came into my room and offered me a stipend." Saul Bellow's famous remark that "Fiction is the higher autobiography" springs to mind. But apart from learning more about Ian McEwan, why should we bother to read this novel?

The place to start is not the first lines of the novel itself, nor its self-consuming ending, but rather the prefatory remark from Garton Ash about life in East Germany: "If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person." Improvisatory exercises in self-indulgence do not typically introduce themselves with quotes about life in a totalitarian state. What vindicates Sweet Tooth's writerly acrobatics is the novel's quiet attention to the politics behind writing in an era when nameless bureaucrats who never read so much as a dust jacket were nevertheless convinced that the work of a novelist could matter in a clash of ideologies. The idea of a time when a government would want to fund a novel is now as foreign as the idea of a time when a novelist could attract public scandal for accepting government funding. But the point is that the novelist's integrity is deeply compromised in such a world — not by the fact that it actually happened, but by its mere plausibility.

The Garton Ash quote is consequently pretty charged: as applied here, it's analogizing early-seventies Britain to East Germany under the Stasi. There's no doubt in my mind that McEwan doesn't actually believe the former was nearly as bad as the other; of course they were on two completely different moral planes. But any state that creates a climate of uncertainty around the integrity and independence of its creative artists compromises everyone, without even involving them. In a way that it's difficult to imagine now, there were no clearly evil people left, but instead everyone was cloaked in ethical gray.

That world has since disappeared — the world where people paid attention to the political commitments of Leonard Bernstein, and the CIA underwrote exhibitions of Jackson Pollock's canvases. But it clothed art and culture with a political gravity that gave fiction something to fight for, or against. In a climate where nations wielded cultural objects as proxies for machine guns, insisting upon the political autonomy of art was good material. Endless Partisan Review-type dissections of whether a film was reactionary or liberal, anti-Communist or anti-anti-Communist, fed an entire generation of artists and infused them with a sense of purpose. Art intuitively fights against the forces that try to coerce or constrain it — Communist, liberal-democratic, or otherwise. In the modern West, there are very few cases of censorship or coercion strong enough to bother fighting against. And the state has, for the most part, lost interest. This is exactly the liberty from interference writers wanted. But there was something appealing about having a shadowy foe to fight against — something that we've since lost.

What Sweet Tooth's closing metafictional turn of the screw accomplishes is an acknowledgment of this complex relationship — that, fight as we may against repression and indoctrination, they provide seductively good material to a writer. Moral outrage is one of the more powerful engines driving any fiction, but it needs some kind of fuel to burn on, even while that fuel is the very thing it strives to destroy. It's perverse and even unethical, but uncomfortably true: while there is still a political mission for the novelist in Syria or China, the times are a little more uneventful on these shores, and it's possible that art suffers on account of this state of affairs. 

While writing the story of his own beguiling by an agent of the state, Tom falls all the more deeply in love with her; in Sweet Tooth, McEwan seems to harbor a little hint of similar ambivalent nostalgia for the battle lines of the cultural Cold War. It's an ironic elegy for a world that had its glories, even if we're better off not living in it.