Mcewan loses compass in Le Carre-land
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