Friday, January 01, 2016

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

"Sweet Tooth", Ian McEwan's 2012 novel offers quite a few of this writer's familiar signature marks - its suitably tricksy, and revisits the not unfamiliar territory of the British secret service. It's also his most entertaining novel since "Atonement", with which it shares a female narrator who is conversant in secrets. McEwan has always written intriguing female characters, but by giving us Serena Frome's narrative in the first person, we are drawn deep into her story from the off - even though, in another familiar move, she is telling the story retrospectively from the vantage point of several decades since the story took place.

Frome, daughter of a bishop, (again, McEwan's characters are frequently this distinguished) has gone through an ill-advised mathematics degree at Cambridge(she'd have been better studying literature, but read novels in her spare time), to landing a job at MI5 following an affair with an academic Tony Canning, who still has connections with the service. When he leaves her suddenly, she is left embittered, but has been successful in her application. The MI5 she joins in the early seventies still sees women as part of the typing pool (though a thinly disguised Stella Rimington makes a cameo appearance, indicating how things are changing). The service is still obsessed with cold war machinations even as the new threat of the Provisional IRA changes the rules of the game around them. McEwan deals deftly with the geopolitical world of London in the early seventies, but the book is not really about this. For Frome has been asked to be part of a cultural sting, where MI5 will finance a young writer as a way of countering Soviet propaganda, in an operation called "Sweet Tooth". The young writer, Tom Haley is struggling at one of the new universities, with a few well received short stories in small magazines, but he is finding it difficult to write a longer work.

Haley, of course, is a surrogate for McEwan himself, and the novel is brilliantly evocative of the early seventies in London, with walk on parts for Ian Hamilton and Martin Amis, as well as regular sections discussing literary themes of the day. (On meeting Tom Maschler, the publisher, Haley praises "Portnoy's Complaint" though not having read it.) After the first section of the novel, a rich autobiography of Frome, as she moves from Cambridge to Whitehall, the "sting" where she approaches Haley kicks off the main plot, with the beautiful Frome falling for Haley - having first read and admired his fiction. In a typically metafictional way, we get paraphrases of some of Haley's stories, dark, unsettling fictions not so unlike McEwan's own. The joy in this is that we're not expected to take any of this too seriously - it may well be the most entertaining novel he's written, particularly if you are willing to wallow in the indulgence of his literary references. There's a lot of similarities to Muriel Spark's equally tricksy "Loitering with Intent" - another novel not afraid to play around with the memories of an earlier literary millieu to comic effect.

Serena and Tom's love affair is in itself a cloak and dagger affair, revelling in that sense of half truths and secrets that are both the writer and the spy's trade - towards the unexpected reveal at the novel's finale, we'll find how closely the two mirror each other - though it mostly involves prolonged time in bed, following from visits to nice restaurants in London and Brighton as Tom spends the stipend he has received as a beneficiary of "Sweet Tooth." He finally starts work on a novella, a bleak dystopian drama, Beckettian in its worldview, which appals both Serena and her handlers, but nonetheless wins the "Jane Austen Prize". Such tissues of lies have to unravel, especially in a McEwan novel, and he's at his ingenious best as he sets up his unlikely scenario only to then bring it crashing down. If there's a fault, its in the sense that for once there's very little at stake, other than a broken heart or two or a compromised literary career. The spies are seen as playing parlous games - serious, yes, but hardly relevant to the world that's going on around them. At the three day week breaks and Harold Wilson replaces Ted Heath again, the backdrop doesn't become anymore important. Serena prefers romances, whilst Haley likes the metafictional, and it could be said, as characters in their own novel, that McEwan gives them both what they want. Tricksy, as I said, but elegantly done.

I found "Saturday" and "On Chesil Beach" unsatisfying works in many ways, the first because of its ludicrous premise, the second because of the coldness of its central story, so this is the first book of his since "Atonement" that I've really enjoyed. Its as light a work as "Amsterdam" and as playful as his mock cold war thriller "The Innocent" but in telling his version of the early 1970s from this distance its a welcoming and entertaining novel. Serena makes a good unreliable narrator, her unsuitability for her job in MI5 providing much of the comedy, even as she exposes the horrible sense of entitlement of the sad men who are promoted over her. She goes to see pub rock bands with her working class colleague, and is disapproving of her more hippy-ish sister. There's plenty of nice little jokes mocking the pretensions of the time - and in Haley's stories, McEwan gets a chance to revisit some of his own dark little tales, with some relish it must be said. What plot there is gets neatly wrapped up, and there's more than a few Macguffin's along the way, In the end, its perhaps an indulgent little novel, but one in which McEwan gets away with writing about writing and recalling his own early career from the early seventies, which makes it something of a joy to read.

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