Book: Sweet Tooth
Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Disappointing is the only word for Ian McEwan’s latest, Sweet Tooth. That’s how his novels have been lately: well-crafted, well-planned, but a waste of time. I didn’t even bother with Solar, such was the dampening experience of On Chesil Beach (even though it fetched him his sixth Booker Prize nomination). It’s been downhill since Atonement; Saturday seemed like an aberration and I was sure the next novel would bring a return to form.
So why pick up Sweet Tooth at all? First, there was the extract in the New Yorker. McEwan begins, as always, masterfully. “The end is already there in the beginning,” as promising writer Tom Haley tells narrator Serena Frome, his lover and satanic muse in the guise of guardian angel, near the climax. In the extract Frome recalls her preparation, by a much older lover during her Cambridge days, for a career in Britain’s domestic secret service, MI5. But plot summary tells you nothing about McEwan’s mastery: his economy of expression, the perfect pitch-tone-rhythm, and the forward propulsion of back-story.
Assessing the craft of one of English’s best living writers is blasphemous, not just because of the acclaim but because his canon is the kind that motivates others to write. Just the memory of his early work’s wickedness or the haunting inquiry of my personal favourite, The Child In Time, is enough to get me at my keyboard and go off into the unknown; few others inspire you into the darkness that lurks beyond what we ordinarily write about. Try The Cement Garden or In Between The Sheets for the reading equivalent of plunging on a roller-coaster. Even The Daydreamer, his seven interlinked stories for children, beats Salman Rushdie’s sea of fiction for children.
Then there’s the lure of a spy novel. McEwan’s The Innocent, a Cold War novel published at the end of the Cold War, was John le Carré taken up another literary level. The promise of a tale from a female agent of MI5 in the early 1970s could not be ignored.
Perhaps it should have been. Sweet Tooth is an operation to promote — in the midst of a cultural Cold War — a non-communist writer. The operation goes awry; but the novel is a meditation on how writers are no less than spies. It is also a yarn that teasingly suggests how McEwan got his break. Within it are alternate takes on McEwan’s early stories, presented as works that Haley has written or is writing, including Sweet Tooth itself. (The fleeting synopses of fiction-within-fiction in Kurt Vonnegut’s early novels, by alter-ego and pulp-writer Kilgore Trout, were more playful.)
Yes, all jolly well, but Sweet Tooth doesn’t quite satisfy the enthusiast’s literary sweet tooth. One wonders: should these British writers — McEwan, Martin Amis, le Carré, Rushdie — just stop writing, for Heaven’s sake? All started with a bang, but they now seem to mechanically crank out cold literary procedurals (though I haven’t read Rushdie’s memoir yet). The only one of this group who got better with age, Christopher Hitchens, is now dead.
Is it that creative writing reaches its zenith in one’s youth? Not if you go by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (published One Hundred Years Of Solitude at 40) or Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes at 66). Had I not been a journalist, would I have written some wicked novels in my youth? Why did Hunter S Thompson shoot himself in the head? If I had been a writer in my youth, would I have produced my own Sweet Tooth, a pale reminder of what I had once been, but now just a waste of your time?