Review: Fiction: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, £13.99
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On the inside cover of Ian McEwan's 13th full-length book, Peter Kemp of the Sunday Times declares its author to be "the supreme novelist of his generation". Not, you will note, the supreme English novelist or even the supreme British novelist but simply the best in the world in whatever language.
Indeed, so revered is McEwan among the chattering classes, here as well as in the UK, that dissenters are few, and thus John Banville's demolition of McEwan's 2005 novel, Saturday, in the New York Review of Books was dismissed by many worshippers as a vindictive attempt to undermine the reputation of a constant rival for literary prizes.
Banville, however, was right about a novel so risibly implausible it asked us to credit that a violent thug who had broken into a neurosurgeon's home would be reduced to tears by a recitation of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach; and that the neurosurgeon would subsequently be permitted to operate on this assailant of his family.
"A dismayingly bad book," Banville deemed it, and he noted also "a disturbing tendency toward mellowness" in this erstwhile "connoisseur of catastrophe".
In fact, the last time McEwan dealt in the truly uncomfortable was in Atonement (2001), where catastrophe ensued from misapprehensions, malice and life-destroying lies.
In general, though, McEwan's reputation as pulse-taker of the social and political Zeitgeist seems unearned. There's a lot of laboriously "topical" material in his more recent fiction -- the fallout from 9/11 in Saturday, global warming concerns in Solar (2010) -- but these concerns come across as window dressing rather than as integral to the story or its characters.
And thus in Sweet Tooth, which is set in the London and Brighton of the early 1970s, although there are recurring references to petrol shortages, miners' strikes, job losses and IRA atrocities, they seem included merely to evoke a general atmosphere rather than to suggest any deeper malaise.
Certainly, Serena, who's the book's narrator for all but the last 19 pages, seems quite unaffected by the wider world around her -- despite the fact that she frets to the reader about political and social injustice and that she works for MI5 as a front for a foundation that seeks to further right-thinking Western opinion.
This, in the manner of the CIA-funded Encounter magazine, provides funds to unsuspecting writers whose political views meet with the approval of their shadowy masters. Serena is asked to recruit one such young novelist and she inconvienently falls in love with him, wondering all the while if she should tell him the truth behind her involvement and worrying that he'll find out anyway.
We are in John Le Carré territory here and the comparison does McEwan few favours -- this is Le Carré-lite, with little real sense of what it means to operate in the twilight universe of espionage or whether anything is really at stake.
"I could lose my lover and my job," Serena reflects late in the book, "but no one was actually going to die."
And by this stage the reader, who's been lulled by Serena's fluently chatty prose but feels cheated at the absence of enlivening incident, has begun to wonder if the author has anything left in store beyond a predictable outcome of personal betrayal and its consequences.
Well, he has.
Throughout the story, the bookishly traditional Serena has been railing against the post-modern "trickery" employed by many contemporary novelists in their attempt to subvert expectations, and in the concluding chapter of this novel -- narrated by Serena's protege in the form of a letter to her -- McEwan pulls a trick that you'll either think a fiendishly clever undermining of all that's gone before or else a callow disregard of the reader's trust in what has been told for the preceding 200 pages.
I incline to the latter. Unreliable narrators are one thing and have made for great novels (none finer than Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier), but there's been no suggestion until page 201 that Serena is anything other than she has presented herself to be, and a very belated contradiction of that reasonable assumption is a trickery so contrived as to be outrageous.
Perhaps I should have been on my guard from the novel's opening line in which Serena confides that her surname of Frome "rhymes with plume", and perhaps I should have borne in mind the self-referential tendency of so many contemporary English novels, but though I noted the guest appearances here of Martin Amis, Ian Hamilton and Tom Maschler (McEwan's own publisher), I innocently thought I was reading a novel about a young woman working in MI5 rather than something quite different.
That revelation might be enough to send McEwan acolytes scurrying back through the novel to see how he did it, but it made me want to throw the book out the window.