How did Ian McEwan go from so radically unsettling a writer to one so conservative, so pleased with his own success, wonders Shougat Dasgupta
PERHAPS WRITERS of Ian McEwan’s accomplishment, status and commercial success in their late middle-age should be forgiven a little justified self-satisfaction, some understandable smugness. InSaturday, McEwan’s last novel but one — his protagonist is a surgeon with a beautiful London house, a beautiful Mercedes, beautiful children and a beautiful wife of long standing to whom he still makes enthusiastic love morning and evening — a thug who threatens to intrude on domestic bliss is undone by Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’: the triumph of English literature, of civilisation, over those who would threaten it. Certainly, John Banville, the Irish novelist and critic, was undone. “Saturday”, he complained in the New York Review of Books, “is a dismayingly bad book.” It “has the feel,” Banville added, chucking fistfuls of salt into the wound he’d just opened, “of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong; if Tony Blair — who makes a fleeting appearance in the book, oozing insincerity — were to appoint a committee to ‘produce a novel for our time’, the result would surely be something like this.”
Something like Banville’s imagined Blairite committee, a political attempt to harness culture, is the catalyst for an unlikely love story in McEwan’s latest novel, the nostalgic “disguised autobiography”, as McEwan has put it in interviews, Sweet Tooth. The novel’s narrator is Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”, McEwan writes pointedly, maybe to evoke a nom de plume, maybe to evoke Serena’s soft, fluffy luxury, “a good-looking girl in a mini-skirt”), born in comfortable circumstances, the daughter of an Anglican bishop, who is prompted by her mother’s latent feminist feeling to study mathematics at Cambridge. What Serena really wants to do though is read novels.
Voracious and undiscriminating, she speed reads through several a week, arguing, to the amusement of more sophisticated peers, for the merits of Jacqueline Susann over Jane Austen. Her eccentric views prompt a student editor to give her a column in an arch student magazine until Serena’s wide-eyed reading of Solzhenitsyn makes her, in her editor’s disappointed view, earnest and, therefore, boring. Serena, it must be said, is a young fogey, primly disapproving of experiment both in literature and life. Falling into an affair with the urbane professor of a boyfriend who turns out to be gay, she receives a crash course in the glories of her culture, in the need to defend its achievements. On the professor’s recommendation, Serena is offered a job at MI5, the less glamorous domestic sibling of MI6, where James Bond plies his trade. Still, however lowly and menial her filefetching position at the intelligence agency, Serena, by now brutally discarded by her married professor, takes small comfort in her independence, in the lonely, secretive life she lives in a London bedsit.
The mature McEwan, gentle, happy, kind to his characters, is a diminished writer. No longer does he have the stomach to see a premise through to its uncomfortable end
It is a long preamble, including other complications which we need not go into here (read the book, instead). The central event of the novel is the moment when Serena is assigned to ‘Sweet Tooth’, a low-level scheme, typical of the Cold War, for British intelligence to clandestinely fund several Left-leaning writers it deemed unsympathetic to Communism who might be encouraged to publish articles and books that promoted so-called western values. McEwan is referring here to the CIA’s well-known involvement in the funding of such respected little magazines as Encounter andThe Paris Review. Serena’s target is the young Tom Haley, a young PhD student at the University of Sussex, who has written some short stories and who the higher-ups at MI5 have determined is an “Atlanticist at heart” on the basis of “a longish article… about the East German uprising of ‘fifty-three’ and “a goodish piece about the Berlin Wall”. Serena, despite her narrow and, like the surgeon in Saturday, insistent philistinism, recognises Haley’s great talent and first falls in love with his clever, perverse short stories — versions of McEwan’s own early stories — and then with their writer. The rest of the novel, an oasis of sex, oysters and champagne in the otherwise dreary, deprived England of the 1970s, plays with the reader’s mounting anticipation of the collapse of a love built on lies and betrayal.
Janet Malcolm, in the contentious opening to The Journalist and the Murderer, asserts that “[e]very journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”. Malcolm describes the journalist as a “kind of confidence man preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Does McEwan see a similar equivalence between the novelist and the spy, engaged in subterfuge and deception? Unfortunately, McEwan no longer has the stomach to see a premise through to its uncomfortable end.
THE FAULT, I concede, is mine but to me the mature McEwan — gentle, happy, kind to his characters, a little sentimental even — is a diminished writer. The gem-like sheen and hardness of the short stories, the slim, fetid early novels forced a physical reaction from the reader. I often finished a McEwan story damp with sweat, eager for a scouring shower. Épater le bourgeois may be childish, but it is infinitely preferable to the tame valorisation of middle class values that appears to be the standard, post-9/11 model for the British and American literary novel. Even in the pedestrian summaries in Sweet Tooth, McEwan’s short stories, ascribed to Haley, retain their capacity for stinging surprise, like a sudden, hard pinch, your flesh twisted in his unrelenting fingers. Here is a description of a girl in Homemade, the story that opens First Love, Last Rites, published in 1975: “Lulu! Her wobbling girth and laughing piggy’s eyes, blooming thighs and dimpled finger-joints, this heaving, steaming leg-load of schoolgirl flesh”. There is not a passage, not a phrase, not a sentence in Sweet Tooth that approaches this menacing energy, this capacity for malevolence.
And if McEwan’s prose has gone a little slack, so too has his once peerless plotting. The turmoil of the 1970s in England, much hinted at in this novel, is little more than picturesque backdrop for what is essentially a novel about the writing of novels. Do readers care how storytellers tell their stories? Care how the sleight of hand is performed? Surely, what matters is the success of the illusion, how deeply we are made to believe in an imagined reality as in reality itself. In Sweet Tooth, McEwan’s machinery creaks too intrusively; it’s not strange then that Tom Haley’s imagination, too, ultimately proves so literal. A theme of Sweet Tooth is ‘akrasia’, people acting against their better judgement. I’ll reflect on this, when I’m standing in the queue at the bookshop to buy Ian McEwan’s next novel.
Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.