Mcewan loses com­pass in Le Carre-land

Sweet Tooth

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley James Bradley

By Ian McEwan Jonathan Cape, 336pp, $32.95

SPEAK­ING about his new novel Sweet Tooth ear­lier this year, Ian McEwan com­pared writ­ers with spies, go­ing on to de­clare ‘‘ all nov­els are spy nov­els’’. As mar­ket­ing lines go it’s a nice one, if a lit­tle self-re­gard­ing: pleas­antly but un­ex­cep­tion­ally provoca­tive, flat­ter­ing to writer and reader, charged with an agree­able fris­son of trans­gres­sion.

It’s tempt­ing to say some­thing sim­i­lar may be said of Sweet Tooth, a slick, slightly glib, po­lit­i­cally qui­es­cent ex­cur­sion into Le Car­reland that flat­ters the reader with the il­lu­sion of a se­ri­ous­ness it doesn’t pos­sess.

Set against the back­drop of the strik­er­av­aged, po­lit­i­cally dys­func­tional Bri­tain of the early 1970s, and tak­ing its cues from the scan­dal sur­round­ing the 1967 reve­la­tion that the jour­nal En­counter had been re­ceiv­ing fund­ing from the CIA, Sweet Tooth fo­cuses on Serena Frome, a bishop’s daugh­ter re­cruited by MI5 and as­signed to a pro­gram de­signed to iden­tify and sup­port writ­ers and aca­demics pre­pared to speak out against com­mu­nism and the per­ceived anti-Amer­i­can­ism of the tra­di­tional Left. For Serena, a vo­ra­cious reader, it’s a dream as­sign­ment, even more so once she meets Tom Ha­ley, the young writer she has been as­signed.

Yet when she be­gins a re­la­tion­ship with Tom she quickly en­ters un­fa­mil­iar and treach­er­ous ter­ri­tory and sets in train a se­ries of events that en­sure the mis­sion ends in dis­grace and dis­missal for her, and lit­er­ary ruin for him.

It’s sub­ject mat­ter McEwan has ex­plored be­fore, per­haps most ob­vi­ously in his 1990 novel The In­no­cent.

Yet while The In­no­cent

— a novel mostly no­table for the as­ton­ish­ingly grue­some se­quence that oc­cu­pies its sec­ond half — is chiefly con­cerned with the hu­man cost of sub­terfuge, Sweet Tooth has at its heart a se­ries of rather more rar­efied ques­tions about truth and fic­tion, and the of­ten con­tested ground be­tween the two.

If it feels a lit­tle fa­mil­iar that’s be­cause it is. Sim­i­lar ques­tions — and in­deed sim­i­lar tricks — lie at the core of McEwan’s im­mensely suc­cess­ful novel Atone­ment, a book to which Sweet Tooth owes quite a bit. How­ever these ques­tions — and in­deed the metafic­tional de­vices that sus­tain them — are also the out­ward man­i­fes­ta­tion of a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with our un­der­stand­ing of ev­ery­thing that has gone be­fore. What one makes of this twist is prob­a­bly at least partly a mat­ter of per­spec­tive: while I only barely re­strained my­self from throw­ing the book at the wall in dis­gust I sus­pect many will be thrilled by its au­dac­ity.

Yet in a way Sweet Tooth’s real prob­lem isn’t its end­ing or even its metafic­tional con­ceits but its cu­ri­ously com­pla­cent pol­i­tics. Where the nov­els of John Le Carre (or in­deed John Banville’s clas­sic fic­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the life of An­thony Blunt, The Un­touch­able) are writ­ten with an out­sider’s eye for the cant and hypocrisy of power, McEwan in Sweet Tooth sees these qual­i­ties as lit­tle more than plot de­vices.

This is not to say the novel is en­tirely un­crit­i­cal of the world it in­hab­its. The por­trait of the misog­yny of MI5 is clear-eyed and mer­ci­less, and at one point Serena’s friend and fel­low MI5 re­cruit, Shirley, brings trou­ble down on the two of them by ob­serv­ing slightly too loudly ‘‘ these berks want to stage a coup’’ in front of a re­tired bri­gadier con­cerned about the influence of rad­i­cal unions over the Labour Party.

But it is to say that there is some­thing al­to­gether too easy in the in­sis­tency of its cri­tique of the Left’s re­fusal to ac­knowl­edge the re­al­ity of life be­hind the Iron Cur­tain, and in the book’s care­fully cal­i­brated mock­ery of Serena’s mid­dle­brow tastes.

That this should be sur­pris­ing is prob­a­bly a fail­ing on my part. Af­ter all it has been a long time since McEwan has been in­ter­ested in serv­ing up any­thing more than el­e­gant en­ter­tain­ments. Yet read­ing his por­trait of Tom it was dif­fi­cult not to won­der what the much younger McEwan, who wrote the breath­tak­ingly dis­qui­et­ing sto­ries that in this novel are at­trib­uted to Tom, would have made of his older self and, in­deed, a book such as Sweet Tooth. Not much, I sus­pect.

Ian McEwan pokes fun at his younger self

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.