MI5 takes a novel ap­proach

Mcewan tests read­ers’ loy­alty with wily tale

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - TOD HOFFMAN

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.

Getty Im­ages/files

Ian McEwan’s lat­est es­pi­onage yarn comes into its own in the book’s fi­nal 20 pages.

Sweet Tooth

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.