‘I’m trying to help you, Serena. You’re not listening. Let me put it another way. In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big grey space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things — and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real. Am I making sense?’
You can’t say the heroine of Ian McEwan’s latest novel wasn’t warned. Serena Frome is a clever, pretty young woman who led a sheltered childhood as the daughter of an Anglican bishop: ‘We grew up inside a walled garden, with all the pleasures and limitations that implies.’
Though a mathematician at university, Serena is a voracious reader of novels, which leads her to Solzenitsyn, which leads her to a vociferous and unfashionable anti-communism, which leads her to a tap on the shoulder from a recruiting don, who leads her to bed, and thence to a very lowly role in the bureaucratic end of the British secret service in 1972.
Her first proper operation is codenamed ‘Sweet Tooth’. The British security services want to give the cultural cold war a nudge in the right direction by covertly channelling money, under the auspices of writers’ grants, to a handful of authors whose sympathies are understood to be anti-communist. Serena is tasked with recruiting the only novelist: Tom Haley, an impecunious lecturer at the University of Sussex. Posing as a representative of the ‘Freedom International Foundation’, she is to persuade him to accept a generous two-year stipend that will give him the chance to complete his novel. She achieves that — and also becomes his lover. There never quite seems to be a right moment to come clean about her cover story.
Sweet Tooth is avowedly a story about stories. Indeed, there’s a strong hint of Northanger Abbey in Serena’s lonely immersion in fiction (‘In my mindless way, I was looking for a something, a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside, as one might a pair of favourite old shoes’), her unfolding naivety, and the lurid conclusions she’s able to draw from a bloodstain on a mattress and the scribbles on a scrap of paper.
Serena’s recruiting don lover tells her one story about himself, which she believes — and then another. She stumbles on a third, only to have it further modified. MI6 wants to fight the cold war in the cultural realm: to ‘change the narrative’. We read, as it were over Serena’s shoulder, a handful of Tom Haley’s stories — which she tries to use to get a purchase on him psychologically. Serena, too, is telling Tom stories — or, as you might say, lies.
A clutch of traditional McEwan themes, then: innocence, betrayal, and the powers and perils of storytelling. The classic McEwan style, too, announces itself immediately: a polished naturalism in downbeat prose, spiked with the unusual details that, paradoxically, are the guarantors of that naturalism. Serena’s university boyfriend, for example, possesses an
unfortunate, sharply angled pubic bone, which first time hurt like hell. He apologised for it, as one might for a mad but distant relative. By which I mean he was not particularly embarrassed. We settled the matter by making love with a folded towel between us, a remedy I sensed he had often used before.
But that naturalism — that sense of a complete, pre-existing world on which the writer reports — is far from unreflective: it’s a knowing and seductive imposture. And, in a way, it’s the book’s very subject. McEwan’s postmodernism, if that clumsy word will do, is all the more pronounced for being several levels down.
We know Serena for a gull when she takes against a short story whose narrator (it turns out) is a figment of the imagination of another character in the story:
I instinctively mistrusted this kind of fictional trick. I wanted to feel the ground beneath my feet. There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honour. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust.
Oh boy, ducky: just you wait.
Funnily enough — and in keeping with just this sort of real-world/fictional-world stuff — there are some cameos from real literary figures. Tom Maschler is Haley’s publisher: he arrives
almost at a run […] kissed me wetly on both cheeks and pumped Tom’s hand […] barely waiting for the answer to one question before starting the next. What were we living on, when were we getting married, had he read Russell Hoban, did he realise that the elusive Pynchon had sat in the same chair the day before, did he know Martin, son of Kingsley, would we like to meet Madhur Jaffrey?
Haley’s first reading is with Martin, son of Kingsley (Amis slays the audience, buys Haley a very large scotch). And there, in the Pillars of Hercules, is Ian Hamilton, ‘watching me with a neutral, almost friendly look, and a lop-sided smile that didn’t part his lips’. Self-indulgent? You might find it so. I was charmed, personally.
Actually, the real charge against Sweet Tooth is the same one you’d make against many of McEwan’s novels. It is that the cleverness of its construction makes it a clockwork rather than a living thing: events take place because the author needs them to, and the psychological plausibility of the characters is subordinate to the architecture of theme and plot rather than vice versa.
Still, he’s in good company. Nabokov, when asked once whether his characters ever came to life and dictated to him where to go with the story, was aghast: ‘My characters are galley slaves’, he replied. And this book (unlike, say, Enduring Love) contains its own defence against that charge.
Sweet Tooth does contain passages too, like the ones I quote above, where its themes are set out with such explicitness that you can practically see the highlighter pens of A-level students brightening the lines as you read. But, again, there’s a very plausible and cunning reason why that might be more than just authorial — or at least, more than just McEwan’s — showing-off.
The bitch of it is that what McEwan really brings off here — what will make you grin and shake your head and go back to read whole passages of the book again — is something that the basic decencies of reviewing (no spoilers) prevent me from explaining. Suffice to say he manages — as he did in Atonement — to whip the tablecloth clean away in the last dozen-odd pages, leaving a full dinner service, complete with long-stemmed wine glasses, quivering but intact. He embeds the story simultaneously more in the world, and more in the realm of fiction.
Anyway, let it not be forgotten, amid all this self-reflexive hurley-burley, that McEwan doesn’t neglect to offer the basic satisfactions: here is a really enjoyable spy novel-cum-love story, the former by way of John le Carré (who’s thanked in the acknowledgements) and the latter by way of Graham Greene.
One of the nice jokes is that Serena thinks Tom’s novel rotten, but then it wins a prize and she decides it’s pretty good. I very much hope that — Sweet Tooth having missed the Man Booker longlist — the same process doesn’t happen in reverse to this one.