Author: Ian McEwan

2012, Nan A. Talese

Filed Under: Literary

Ian McEwan, you’re a dick. You are a phenomenal writer, perhaps my favorite living author. Just stop being a dick, please.

Sweet Tooth, much like 2003’s Atonement, is a showpiece of McEwan’s enormous talent. You can open either of these books to just about any page and find a beautifully crafted paragraph that will probably make you seethe with jealousy because you will never be able to write something that good, certainly not with consistency. The entire segment of Atonement that retells Robbie’s war experience in France is, to my mind, nearly perfect.

But for the same reason so many people look upon that book as a marvel and a masterpiece, I think it is McEwan’s most disappointing: you can practically see his dickish smile taunting you as you finish the final, plot twisting pages. Look at what I did, he seems to say, just because I can. By contrast, his earlier book The Cement Garden is short and messier but just as emotionally brutal. He doesn’t need to pull the rug he’s carefully woven over however many pages out from under the reader in the end, the rug is enough. (And that languishing metaphor exemplifies exactly why McEwan’s skill with words makes me jealous.)

[The are some spoilers ahead, so don’t read beyond the break if that sort of thing bothers you. I’ll make the rest easy for you: if you liked Atonement, you’ll probably like Sweet Tooth; if you haven’t read Atonement, read that first.]

Though Sweet Tooth and Atonement share some disappointing similarities, they have quite different plots and structures. Sweet Tooth follows a mostly linear timeline, and is set in the 70’s, a time with a cultural sensibility perhaps a bit more familiar to modern readers–or at least less romanticized–than the manors and war-torn Europe of Atonement.

Serena Frome (pronounced like plume, she constantly reminds us) always had a passion for literature, or at least books (she thinks of Valley of the Dolls as a literary masterpiece). She discovers she’s okay at chess, and ends up going to Cambridge and getting a third (like a C-average) in math. She eventually  finds herself in an affair with an older, married man named Tony Canning, a college professor who sets about sophisticating her with philosophy and history books and the like. Their affair comes to an end, but not before Tony arranges a job interview for her at MI5, where she is hired as a glorified secretary.

A lot of the gender stuff at work here (particularly as this is in 1970s Britain) is really interesting. Serena and the other women in the department are at best tolerated by the male agents. For all but a rare few, marrying one of these men will be the apex of their careers. Serena, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear at first (cue the corner of McEwan’s lip turning up), is eventually selected for an assignment code-named “Sweet Tooth.”

Intended as a counter-punch to Soviet propaganda, the point of “Sweet Tooth” is to surreptitiously funnel money from the government through a variety of foundations and organizations, and fund Western artists who look to have a more anti-Commie outlook. She is assigned a young author, Thomas Haley, who McEwan modeled after himself. Before long Serena falls in love with Haley, and attempts to make a life with him while keeping her motivations (and his source of income) secret.

Serena’s characterization is the backbone of this book. She is interesting in her unexceptionality; a bumbling spy at best, somewhat of a coward, and not nearly as smart as she thinks she is (without even taking into account the implications of the twist at the end). That would have been sufficient. It still wouldn’t have made Sweet Tooth McEwan’s best work, but it’s a decent love story and a satisfying enough read. Instead [here’s that spoiler if you haven’t already figured it out] he pulls the exact same trick as Atonement: surprise, the narrator isn’t who you thought it was, it was someone else, who manifested the power of writing and authorial control to embody a larger theme.

I’ll grant that he pulls it off neatly, and it’s not at all unsatisfying or flawed in its execution. It just wasn’t necessary. I would have been perfectly happy with a nice character study about a mediocre “spy” who believed she had more intelligence and agency than she did. What I don’t need is to feel the author’s breath on the back of my neck as he rubs my nose in it.

Similar Reads: Atonement (McEwan), American Pastoral (Roth)