Despite the cold, the wind, and the snow, Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth was great company yesterday--and the day before--on a trip to and from Wisconsin, down a road that is hardly less traveled, at least by me. Sweet Tooth is McEwan's latest novel, but it stayed, unplayed, on my iPod for a year and a half because its Brit-ness seemed too unfailingly prim in the workout room at the college down the street.
But on a quick trip east, I loved it--I really did. It's got a bit of a hint of John Fowles's French-Lieutenant's Woman in it, a novel I've always greatly admired in spite of its meta-fictional character--well, maybe because of its meta-fictional character. Sweet Tooth has that cute meta-narrative touch too, in delicately fabricated suggestions and hints, all of which get aired when the whole masquerade ends with an unforgiveably long letter a young writer named Tom Haley leaves for his love, a lusty liar named Serena Frome, who narrates the story and is, stem to stern almost, it's victim.
This novel is, like some are, about writing. No, it's a love story. No, it's about espionage. Well, it's all of those things, but mostly, I think, it's about writing. If you don't like the incestuous nature of novels about novels, no matter--you'll probably like Sweet Tooth anyway.
I'm not sure what true feminists might think of Serena, who is clearly intelligent but is, throughout, clearly not her own boss. Her mother will not let her major in English, despite her love for reading; she's engineered into a position with the Brit CIA, MI5, by an older lover; she is clearly unhappy when she is not loved; and her own indecision threatens to end the relationship that gives her life, until finally the shell game ends and the truth is told. She is an almost shamelessly passive heroine--"love rides the rails."
But then we all are passive victims in any plot as deceptively rendered as is Sweet Tooth, despite its goofy title.
No matter about passivity. Sweet Tooth is a wonderful read (I can't really call it a listen), and besides, character, passive or not, isn't at the heart of things here. Plot is. This is genre-fiction at the masterpiece level because McEwan's literary power is such that just about every scene, every character, every setting is laced with visual detail that's Vermeer-like. Seriously. "Writing is seeing," I used to say to students, another version of the proverbial "show, don't tell." McEwan writes the book on seeing.
There's an obvious danger in too much description, too much detail; but McEwan is as good as any writer in the English language at knowing how much is too much or when less is actually more. It's probably dangerous, but the truth is I was seeing this story, not reading it, not just hearing it, while going 75 miles an hour down I-90, from Portage, WI to Worthington, MN. And it was a great vision.
No matter how you cut it up, Sweet Tooth is a love triangle, plain and simple, except not plain and simple, and maybe not even a triangle because there are just too many fascinating corners. The beautiful Serena sits at a desk at MI-5 until the honchos give her an assignment. It's the Cold War era, and not far away Northern Ireland is suffering successive terrorist bombs. To keep jolly old England from disintegrating altogether, the secret service looks to help along certain young writers they believe offer intellectuals a conservative slant or worldview, just to be sure those writers keep writing. They believe that the battle for the English mind is itself one they shant not lose.
Should the writers who are chosen be known to take money from MI5, they would be immediately silenced; so the legendary spymasters simply hide behind a series of foundations and literary societies and hand out the covert earnest money. Young Tom, who is a lecturer at Bristol with nothing more than a couple of intelligent short stories to his name can hardly believe he's been chosen for all the loot he gets, but then he too has to be kept in the dark. The beautiful Serena is the agent in charge the operation, dubbed, of course, "Sweet Tooth."
Serena's love for reading gets her that job. She does, she and Tom fall in love, hard and passionately. Holding on to her secret while falling in love with her mark creates tremulous guilt and makes the lovemaking even more spirited because every tryst is precarious.
That's it. That's the plot. It twists and turns and slides into seeming ditches until the very last mile, which is quite darling actually.
Sweet Tooth is beautifully written, lavishly plotted, and glowingly concluded, equally sweet and dangerous as a traveling companion.