In 2002 Ian McEwan wrote a novel called Atonement that sold hundreds of thousands of copies for finding a respectable context for his macabre trick edge. In dense, clotted prose McEwan showed how a young schemer upsets the complacencies of the generation between the wars. It was a good book but a labored one, designed as a showcase for McEwan’s ability to write about distant times and places. But the consequences were immediate: it was a marker dividing “old” from “new” McEwan, the former having been what a New York Times critic called an expert in “all cool post-1960s perversity.”
Sweet Tooth‘s Serena Frome practices her own cool post-1960s perversity. “Reading was my way of not thinking,” she says early in the novel. The daughter of an Anglican bishop and submissive mother digests, rather indiscriminately, Austen, Solzhenitsyn, and Ian Fleming. At university she majors in maths. It’s 1969, the nadir of the Vietnam War, the start of Britain’s slow humiliating decline into inflation, trade union strikes, three-day weeks, and prime ministers with elbow pads sewn into their coats. An affair with a professor leads to a job with M15, although Serena expresses political views of no interest and is motivated by a sense that sex is power: “I managed week to week, but did not feel part of a glamorous clandestine world.” A purgatorial stint as a clerk ends when supervisors ask her help in wooing impoverished writers of promise into accepting secret financial renumeration from one of the Information Research Department’s front organizations. Dismissing worries that these writers would get paid to disseminate propaganda, Serena’s M15 superiors have subtler aims, as the excellently named Peter Nutting explains:
We’re looking for the sort who might spare a moment of this hard-pressed fellows in the Eastern bloc, travels out there perhaps to lend support or sends books, signs petitions for persecuted writers, engages his mendacious Marxist colleagues here, isn’t afraid to talk publicly about writers in prison in Castro’s Cuba. Generally swims agains the orthodox flow.”
George Orwell, he reminds her, gave the Foreign Office a list of thirty-eight communist fellow-travelers. The Encounter incident is mentioned and also dismissed. Her target is T.H. Haley, a short story writer responsible for “a goodish piece about the Berlin Wall.”
The Encounter incident refers to the exposure in the American press of the extent to which the CIA had subsidized intellectual life since the dawn of the Cold War. One of McEwan’s ur-texts is Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, which as I wrote last February captured the moment when obsolescence compelled these intellects into accepting deals for far less in return because it meant listening to Pablo Casals in the same room as Jackie Kennedy. The seduction of Haley is for McEwan conventional stuff; there’s no suspense possible when a first-person narrator explain what she must do, what will happen if she does it, and the indecision about not doing it. Thanks to the dough but clueless about its source, Haley squeezes a novel out of himself, a dystopian nether world familiar to J.G. Ballard fans. It wins a major literary prize. Martin Amis and Ian Hamilton make scabrous cameos, the first a reminder of which post-sixties literary scion would be most acceptable to the fogies, the second a symbol of fogie respectability. Max, the supervisor with whom Serena was supposed to have an affair, takes a predictable sort of revenge on Serena.
The admixture of crude misogyny and covert homosexuality animates the best parts of Sweet Tooth (last week I read The Misgiving, another first-person narrative written by a male novelist about an independent woman in the sixties seducing a closeted bisexual). By McEwan’s standards the “twist” in the last twenty pages is tired, changing nothing about the way in which McEwan had presented Haley. Tensions dissipate. A novel about a character as self-contained as Serena – note the name – requires foils; at a slim three hundred pages, Sweet Tooth is an uninhabited novel. When it most demands some engagement with the world it was at pains to depict it hesitates. To expect a Harlot’s Ghost from McEwan is unfair, but for an okay Le Carré novel I can go to Le Carré, who is still writing okay Le Carré novels.