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Ian McEwan's 'Sweet Tooth' Leaves A Sour Taste

Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth is that oddest of literary achievements: an ingenious novel that I compulsively read, intellectually admired and increasingly hated. By the time I got to McEwan's last sneer of a plot twist, I felt that reading Sweet Tooth is the closest I ever want to come to the experience of watching a snuff film. Think that's harsh? Open up Sweet Tooth and find out what McEwan thinks of you, Dear Reader, particularly if you're a woman, as most readers of fiction are.

Open up 'Sweet Tooth' and find out what McEwan thinks of you, Dear Reader, particularly if you're a woman, as most readers of fiction are.

Our heroine here is a young woman named Serena Frome who devours 19th and 20th century fiction — everything from Jane Austen to Jacqueline Susann to Muriel Spark. Several times in Sweet Tooth, Serena discusses her reading tastes, much to the exasperation of her brainy novelist boyfriend. Serena says, "I wanted characters I could believe in and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love. ... It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say 'Marry me' by the end." Later on, Serena adds, "I didn't like tricks." Oh, what fun McEwan has squirting acid over everything simple Serena — clearly, the Common (Female) Reader — enjoys in a novel.

McEwan deploys his great gifts of storytelling to draw readers into an intricate plot about Serena's career during the 1970s, working as a low-level operative for MI5, the British internal intelligence service. Then, by novel's end, McEwan ridicules us readers for ever believing in Serena and the fictional world he's blown breath into.

McEwan's title, Sweet Tooth, refers to both a clandestine operation Serena carries out and to the mind-candy lure of fiction itself. Certainly, as much as it is a suspense tale, a novel of ideas and a political meditation on the decline of Britain in the 1970s, Sweet Tooth is also a cynical novel about the art of fiction and its pointlessness in the larger scheme of things.

As the story goes, beautiful Serena is recruited into MI5 by her lover at Cambridge, a history professor who is one of the many brilliant, narcissistic and essentially mean men whom she falls for. After graduation, Serena moves into a damp bed-sit in London and enters the intelligence service at a time when the glass ceiling for women was ankle-high. She diligently files and smiles until the day that her expertise as a novel reader is called upon for a mission dubbed "Sweet Tooth."

MI5 wants to secretly fund fledgling writers and artists whose work it deems anti-communist in sympathy. Serena is dispatched to entice a fiction writer named Tom Haley into the operation, and, as preparation, she reads the short stories he's written, which McEwan himself, of course, concocts and scatters throughout this novel. Violating one of the cardinal rules of tradecraft, Serena falls in love with Tom, even as she's tormented by the fact that she's concealing her true identity as a secret agent.

As he has in previous novels, like Atonement, McEwan revels here in breaking the "fourth wall" between his fictional world and our own: For instance, real-life Brit writers, living and dead, like Martin Amis and Ian Hamilton turn up in scenes and schmooze with Tom and Serena. Tom's short stories all revolve around the themes of love, betrayal and fakery and, so, they explicitly comment on the larger tale this novel tells. Betrayal certainly dooms the relationship between Serena and Tom, as well the relationship — built on an illusion, after all — between the reader and this novel itself.

What sets Sweet Tooth apart from McEwan's other work, however, is the tone. There's a degree of nastiness here — particularly in that genderized disdain for female readers as well as in McEwan's cool dismissal of the products of his own imagination. Postmodernist writing can have humor and heart, but, in Sweet Tooth, McEwan's postmodernist narrative "tricks" simply serve as weapons of mass destruction. The novel is exposed as little more than a mental game, and Serena, whom we've grown attached to, is brutally silenced. All that remains is a reader's grudging recognition that McEwan, our Author-God, is awfully clever. Call me sentimental, but that's not enough.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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