MI5 takes a novel approach
Mcewan tests readers’ loyalty with wily tale
Ian McEwan is among the most honoured writers of his generation, having won a Booker Prize (for Amsterdam), W.H. Smith and National Book Critics Circle awards (Atonement), the Whitbread Award (The Child in Time) and the Somerset Maugham Award (First Love, Last Rites). On the basis of those credentials alone, he has earned readers’ patience and trust. He puts both to the test with his new novel, Sweet Tooth.
It’s 1972 and things look bleak in the United Kingdom. Coal miner strikes and rampant inflation have the economy on the brink of collapse. IRA terrorism is wreaking havoc in Northern Ireland. To all appearances, the Soviet Union is winning the Cold War and, perhaps, the nuclear arms race as well.
Sweet Tooth is the code name for a low-level MI5 operation to secretly fund right-minded writers to pen books that will paint the West in a positive light. Nobody would actually be told what to write. Instead, the security service relied on choosing the proper beneficiaries – ones who will disseminate a message sympathetic to Britain without need of much prodding.
Serena Frome is assigned to convince Tom Haley, a minor, if promising, young author to accept a grant that will enable him to forgo regular employment to concentrate on completing a novel. She is not only clever and charming, but unbearably beautiful. There’s little suspense: It’s clear they will fall for one another. Unaware of the source of his support, Haley happily accepts his windfall. Terrified of damaging their relationship, Frome never discloses her association with MI5.
Warning her of the perils of the intelligence game is Max, a more senior officer who complicates matters by also being in love with her: “You imagine things – and you make them come true. The ghosts become real. Am I making sense?” Well, unfortunately, not really. It’s the kind of drivel that imaginary spies say in an effort to make their petty subterfuges sound weighty.
We learn about Haley through summaries of his earlier publications, which are drawn from McEwan’s own short fiction, according to a prepublication profile that appeared in Maclean’s magazine. The premise seems to be that the artist is revealed through his art, because none of the plots is remotely connected to Britain’s social or political dilemmas.
Haley composes a dystopian story about the collapse of English society. MI5 is disappointed with its return on investment. As Haley’s reliability is called into question, so is Frome’s judgment, and the operation unravels.
Funding culture through various front groups and cut-out organizations has been a common technique for winning hearts and minds. Whether it has ever been effective is difficult to quantify, but for any artist discovered to be on the payroll of an intelligence agency, the consequences are devastating. The revelation immediately destroys his credibility.
The act of writing, of forming novel ideas, is never made to feel dangerous. Without that, the entire Sweet Tooth operation is vaguely ridiculous. There simply isn’t much tension. Nothing bigger is at stake than the protagonists’ relationship and reputations. Important to them, but trivial in the grander scheme.
In fact, the force of art has always been effectively subversive and a source of genuine concern to tottering governments. Only during a rather artless interrogation of Frome by superiors who are assessing her fitness for the assignment does the bureaucrat’s unease with artists find voice. They question her about past associations with writers as if the profession is synonymous with sedition. It reflects a fear that is misplaced in British intelligence, in particular, which has enjoyed a long and close association with literary figures. If McEwan’s purpose is to show MI5 as buffoonish, he does so without the humour of such marvellous satires of the intelligence world as Graham Greene’s classic Our Man in Havana or John le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama.
Haley exposes a simple truth of Sweet Tooth when he reveals that he tried to write about his experience: “Buried deep in the concept was a flaw, and even that word sounded too good for what it was trying to name. It simply wasn’t interesting.”
In the final 20 pages of the novel, however, McEwan does pull off a neat sleight of hand that will cause the reader to reconsider all preconceptions of the story to that point. It is a very effective twist that does make sticking with the book worthwhile. obsession.”
Memoir writing is hard — unless the author is a recovering addict, former president or aging rock star — and readers may well wonder why they should care. Fans of Auster’s postmodern fiction will care, of course, and so might the bohos of Brooklyn, where Auster put down roots long before that borough became trendy.
But readers who aren’t as familiar with Auster’s work may find themselves put off by his intensely selfconscious mannerisms, especially his unfortunate decision to write this in the second person.
In an interview before publication, Auster says it “would have been too hermetic, too egocentric” to use the traditional “I” voice. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Readers are so used to the first person that it goes almost unnoticed, while the “you” continually calls attention to itself. Even worse, the cumulative effect is one of an unseemly self-regard, as though he is admiring himself in a mirror.
Although it’s a given that writers are unusually interested in their own artistic process, Auster is best when he steps outside of himself and observes the world around him. He has a good eye, a long memory and an elegant way with words, and these skills, without all the gimmicks, often combine to produce memorable results.
Ian McEwan’s latest espionage yarn comes into its own in the book’s final 20 pages.