Sweet Tooth (2012), By Ian McEwan


Ian McEwan, whose books include Solar and Atonement, is a remarkably pessimistic novelist. It is as if his inspiration is the darkest take on inscrutable, imperfect and savage evolution, envisioning Homo sapiens today as confirming a modern secular view which is a theoretical and technical explanation for the old characterizations of a doomed creature suffering darkness of the intellect and weakness of the flesh. I find no signs in his novels that he pities his bumbling, fatuous, often disgusting characters, especially those who dramatize his peoples’ inevitable self-destructiveness. I do find an elegant understated style, and in some of his writing he puts it to the service of performing wondrous literary magic tricks. If all is dire and hopeless in this old/new vale of tears, and we’re all unworthy, let us nevertheless call in the magician for a few moments of revenge on that brutishness through an evening of stage illusions.

Escape to the Arena.

Since it’s very hard to be a distracting magician in a hopeless realm, McEwan (and the Artist per se) at least can help while away the dreadful time through the ingenious fashioning of a beautiful style of trickiness.  It’s just that eventually there will be a final act, a last bow, and the curtain lowered.

McEwan, then, is not so much an aesthete as a magician who performs masterfully.

In talking about Sweet Tooth, it is very easy to spoil the magic for those who’ve not yet attended the performance. Leave it at this: McEwan is up to his narrative trick of Atonement.

In Sweet Tooth, a novel set in 1970s Britain long before today’s “Digital Revolution” and hence perhaps easier for the aging McEwan to write, McEwan is finding it harder than ever, it seems to me, to cast his spell. He is becoming increasingly hemmed in. The beautiful heroine, Serena, is in her mid-twenties, of slightly better than average intelligence, and is much more interested in her wardrobe and what men think of her than the MI5 mission into which she is unwittingly maneuvered, a mission that anyway seems vague and doubtful in importance. Casting things through a Serena is one of the literary survival formulas of today, given the shift in readership.

Serena Frome (rhymes with plume [this one beneath McEwan, perhaps, as is another one in the book, “Oleg Lyalin,” a Soviet double agent who fools British Intelligence]) is played as a mark by MI5, by a professor in his fifties, by a young writer, and finally by McEwan himself. She’s not especially interesting and her growing predicament seems inevitable near the beginning of the narrative told in the first-person by Serena in a fine display of today’s girltalk. (Gillian Flynn’s send-up of that girltalk in Gone Girl is much better than McEwan’s, but his is very good.) Serena herself excels at capturing guytalk in its tiresomeness, and her skill here seems a literary need of McEwan in his general distaste for humankind and doubtful for Serena in her general lack of awareness. Stretching things. “Out of character.”

McEwan seems a pro’s pro except for the endings of some of his novels, Sweet Tooth included. It takes too long to come in for a landing.

Solar is a much purer book than Sweet Tooth.