"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 18, 2012

"Sweet Tooth" by Ian McEwan (Book Review)

Ian McEwan is one of the best contemporary (living) writers and a new book is therefore a feast. Sweet Tooth is the title and this novel gives us McEwan at his classical best. At first glance, it is the story of a young woman, Serena Frome, her love affairs and her entrance into MI5, the British security service; but there is a postmodern twist in the tail which turns this seemingly middlebrow story completely on its head. Sweet Tooth is also the story of Britain (and Europe) in 1972 with its sad malfunctioning of public services, terrorism threats, and of course the Cold War still very hot. And the novel pries into the problems of fictionality and literature, even giving us the young Ian McEwan and his literary world in the figure of his "invented self" Tom Haley. "Sweet Tooth," by the way, refers to an MI5 program to stealthily sponsor the arts, in order to promote some democratic ideals in that leftist environment. Selena Frome ("rather gorgeous" and "rhymes with plume") is selected to bring Tom Haley into the program, and of course she falls terribly in love with him...

Here are the main points:
  1. The story told by Serena Frome. a rather gauche young woman who is addicted to "middlebrow" novels which she "speed-reads," reads itself like just such a middlebrow novel, until McEwan turns the tables on his readers with a highbrow, postmodern trick. The sweet story is about Serena's loves (Jeremy who turns out to be homosexual, the much older professorial Tony who dumps her to protect his marriage, and finally the young author Tom), her entrance into MI5 and her task to recruit the writer Tom Haley. She offers him a stipend "enough to keep a chap from having to do a day job for a year or two, even three." As happens in all novels she reads, she finally "gets" the right guy, although she fails miserably in her spy job.
  2. The story of Britain (and wider, Europe) in the early 1970s: malfunctioning of the state (like a rotten tooth), terrorism threats, a war in the Middle East and the First Oil Crisis, the Cold War and rampant leftism among the young.
  3. A tongue in cheek "Tinker Tailor" story of MI5 - the misogynist culture, the complicated secrecy about nothing, the silliness of the Sweet Tooth project.
  4. The world of literature when McEwan himself was writing his first short stories - his colleagues as Martin Amis, his publisher, etc. Several of McEwan's early stories are paraphrased, the dystopian novel Tom Haley produces as part of the MI5 program (so not at all what they wanted!) is also based on such a story.
The construction of this novel, which has been called a "Russian doll" with its stories in stories and its mirroring images, is immaculate. But it is above all a comic novel, and McEwan clearly had lots of fun writing it - and at least this reader had as much fun reading it.