Sweet Tooth

Ian McEwan is one of the few highbrow writers in England who is also a popular, bestselling author. Over a career of more than forty years he has proven a master of the melodramatic and macabre as well as the allusive and artistic: he’s so readable in fact that he almost falls under the “guilty pleasure” category. He is able — an unusual achievement — to appeal simultaneously to the greedy, undiscriminating, down-it-in-one gulp reader and to the literary sophisticate in search of metafictional layers.

There are plenty of the latter in McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, which, as the author has said in an interview, is “a novel about reading, apart from anything else.” It is also, at least on one level, a spy story, set in London’s secret intelligence services during the early 1970s. This is hallowed literary ground, the terrain of George Smiley and his nemesis Bill Haydon, but McEwan has a different tale to tell. The fumbling machinations of his intelligence officers are a far cry from the serpentine maneuvers of literary spymasters like Smiley.

The early 1970s — the time of McEwan’s own coming-of-age — was a peculiar moment in English history. There was a widespread sense of national decline. Inflation soared; miners’ strikes paralyzed the nation; war broke out in the Middle East; OPEC delivered its “oil price shock”; IRA bombs exploded regularly in urban centers. Conservative Edward Heath had come to power in 1970, and the civil service, including MI5, was manned by what Sweet Tooth‘s narrator, Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume”!), calls “the great and good.” “They could be charming, even witty, and the whiff they trailed of cigars and brandy made the world seem orderly and rich. They thought much of themselves, but they didn’t seem dishonest, and they had, or gave the impression they had, a strong sense of public service. They took their pleasures seriously (wine, food, fishing, bridge, etc.) and apparently some had fought an interesting war…. Let these men rule the world,” she concludes. “There were others far worse.”

Through Serena Frome we get a worm’s-eye view (or a girl’s-eye view — pretty much the same thing, at that time) of an Establishment that had not yet yielded to the feminist tide. The daughter of a bishop and the holder of a third-class degree in mathematics from Cambridge, Serena is a natural recruit for a service whose female members are required only to be well-born and not too stupid — on both of which counts Serena is well qualified.

It’s that stupid-but-not-too-stupid balance that McEwan has hit just right. An avid reader of the greedy and undiscriminating type mentioned above, Serena admits that for her reading was not an aid to thinking but was in fact way of not thinking. She probably would have been quite happy doing an English degree at a provincial university, but her mother, in an unwonted fit of feminist zeal, persuaded her that if she could get in then it was her duty as a woman to go to Cambridge to study math: “I don’t want you to waste your life,” she told Serena.

Serena is recruited to MI5 through the wiles of an older lover; an innocent enthusiasm for the anti-Soviet novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a quick swotting-up of Churchill’s historical works finally land her the job. Once there, she realizes she’s been conned. “It was an insult, a lowly secretarial position at two-thirds the usual rate. With tips I could have earned double as a waitress.” She is put to work in the Registry, “that vast memory bank where more than three hundred well-born secretaries toiled like slaves on the pyramids.” And the ceiling, for the likes of her, isn’t even glass; it’s concrete. Change is in the air, with an older colleague of Serena’s named Millie Trimington (a clear nod to Stella Rimington, who in the 1990s would rise to become director general of MI5) beginning to stir things up. But Serena isn’t one to challenge the status quo. “I was the sort of girl who could occasionally speak her mind, but my stronger impulse was for advancement and for approval from my seniors.”

She gets such approval, or so it seems, when she is chosen for a secret operation code-named Sweet Tooth, which involves setting up a phony foundation to finance writers who seem to be anti-Communist in hopes that her work might promote democratic, capitalist values — a plan inspired by the real case of the American magazine Encounter, revealed in 1967 to have been bankrolled by the CIA. The source of Sweet Tooth’s funding (taxpayer money funneled through MI5) is not to be revealed to the lucky young authors who benefit from its largesse.

One of these is Serena’s own charge, one T. H. Healy, a budding fiction writer who bears a marked resemblance to the young Ian McEwan of the same era. Here we have the first intimation that Sweet Tooth might turn out to be more playful metafiction than gripping spy story, something McEwan has admitted to: “The novel is a muted and distorted autobiography, though unfortunately a beautiful woman never came into my room and offered me a stipend.” Healy’s published work, which Serena peruses in preparation for luring him into Sweet Tooth’s trap, is even derived from McEwan’s own early stories; versions of them can be found in his 1978 collection In Between the Sheets.

Serena now reveals her criminal unprofessionalism by immediately embarking on a sexual relationship with Healy and, later, reveals her stupidity and cowardice by failing to come clean with him about Sweet Tooth once the two have fallen genuinely in love and begin to plan a future together. It is giving nothing away to say that they are both headed for professional disaster: Serena has admitted as much in the novel’s very first paragraph. But there is a surprise at the end, though it is more a metafictional than a conventional plot twist.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the first three-quarters of the novel, I was irritated by this virtuosic conclusion. Perhaps this is due to my own shortcomings as a reader, for along with the shallow Serena I prefer realistic novelists to the clever postmodern tricksters (Barth, Fowles et al.) favored by the brainy Healy. Yet by giving us an ingenious but utterly implausible ending, McEwan diminishes what had, until that point, been a remarkable evocation of a world that now seems impossibly remote, though many of us can still remember it: a time in which the still-regnant prewar ruling class was able to persuade itself that the upheavals of the sixties marked no permanent change, even as society was shifting and reshaping itself under their very feet. This, in the end, proves a more interesting story than the intellectual exercise provided by a sixty-something McEwan playing with what might have been, but wasn’t, his twenty-something self, and I was sorry to see it curtailed. Sometimes the sweet is the best part of the meal.