A middlebrow spy spoof stuffed with self-regard

Sat, Aug 25, 2012, 01:00

FICTION: Sweet Tooth By Ian McEwan Jonathan Cape, 323pp. £13.99ESPIONAGE as portrayed in the movies is a dark and grimly glamorous business; the men are super-fit while the women invariably resemble sleek models shaped by hours in the gym. The real-life version is far more mundane, and the successful agent tends to be the least likely individual in the room.

Some spies, particularly the eastern-bloc variety as manufactured by Hollywood, are little more than assassins; ruthless, cunning, and monosyllabic. But the British spy is Oxbridge-educated, speaks rather well, knows his wine and may have sexual issues. He is presented as less a psychopath, more a smoothly assured civil servant possessed of a well-developed sense of irony – always useful when defining the point at which security becomes secrecy. Betrayal is a prerequisite, as are social skills. He or she must be plausible, as most people are seldom as stupid as they appear.

Ian McEwan might well have spent a moment considering stupidity as a communal affliction suffered by readers of fiction. Among the many hazards of being clever is a tendency to underestimate others. From the opening sentence of this glib beach read, marred by stagy dialogue and more holes than a string shopping bag, something fishy is afoot.

The ultra-brisk tone of the narrator Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”) never rings true, nor does the plot, tossed about as it is between the personal and the public, with odd bits of contentious McEwan polemic thrown in, such as his narrator’s reporting of a brigadier’s views of Bloody Sunday: “. . . and the net effect of killing 13 civilians on that day was to endear both wings of the IRA to the world. Money, arms and recruits were as rivers of honey in spate. Sentimental and ignorant Americans, many of Protestant rather than Catholic descent, were feeding the fires with their foolish dollars donated to the Republican cause through fundraisers like Noraid. Not until the United States had its own terrorist attacks would it begin to understand. To right the tragedy of Derry’s wasted lives, the Official IRA slaughtered five cleaning ladies, a gardener and a Catholic priest in Aldershot, while the Provisionals murdered mothers and children in Belfast’s Abercorn restaurant, some of them Catholics . . .”

Serena sets out to tell her story: “. . . almost 40 years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within 18 months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover . . .” Put that way, it sounds almost exciting. But Serena’s “mission” is hardly dangerous, its only hazards being food and sex. The daughter of an Anglican bishop, she grew up a cathedral precinct. “My home was genial, polished, orderly, book-filled. My parents liked each other well enough and loved me, and I them.” By the third paragraph of the novel her pomposity is confirmed and doubts as to her characterisation already established.

She recalls wanting to study English literature as she speed-read novels, skipping descriptive passages. But her mother had other ideas and insisted that Serena, who was good at maths, pursued that subject at university, with a view to “a proper career in science or engineering or economics”. Serena’s mother is a capable woman but barely fleshed out in a narrative of staggering superficiality.

McEwan’s previous novel, Solar (2010), an ambivalent comedy with a serious theme, global warming, attempted a lighter touch. It continued the more commercial approach first heralded in Saturday (2005), in which the brain-surgeon central character, defying all normal human behaviour, sets out to save a villain who has viciously humiliated his daughter. Far worse, though, was Enduring Love (1997). The slight morality tale Amsterdam managed to win the 1999 Booker prize. Yet McEwan began as a serious literary writer and has written several fine novels, including The Child in Time (1987), The Innocent (1990), the daring Black Dogs (1992) and On Chesil Beach (2007).

There was also the evocative opening of Atonement (2001), which defers to Waugh, while McEwan’s early work, notably The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981), for all its macabre intensity, was original and well-written.

Sweet Tooth, set in the 1970s, the era of McEwan’s youth, relies for period atmosphere largely on his memory of the cost of living. If this book is intended as an homage to John le Carré, it does little service to either writer, aside from proving that le Carré is very good at what he does.

Serena duly goes to Cambridge to read maths, discovering that she is not as good as she thought. She does know that she is beautiful, and it is her appearance, not academic prowess, that gets her noticed; that and her shortlived fiction column in a student paper.

Her first boyfriend is gay; her next is much older, married and dying. Then she falls for a man who doesn’t seem to want her, while her blockbuster romance is engineered by a lie her bosses send her to peddle to an aspiring writer. McEwan appears so taken by his unlikely spy that he doesn’t bother making her recruitment credible, and gets caught between writing a thriller and attempting the next Bridget Jones (except that Serena has no sense of humour and this novel is low on laughs).

Considering that they inhabit a working environment where everyone is trained not to trust anyone, indiscretion runs riot. The text is heavy with in-jokes and references to other writers. McEwan may as well have added footnotes. Martin Amis has more than a walk-on, as does McEwan’s publisher, Tom Maschler. Although it is gratifying to note that McEwan’s invented writer, Tom Haley, reveres the great JG Ballard, the dropping of so many living literary names wears thin.

If Serena is a smug, unconvincing and shallow creation preoccupied with her choreographed sex life, it is because this is a smug and shallow work, consistently let down by lazy writing. Tom, the wannabe novelist, lives by the belief that everything is there to be written about. Throughout the narrative McEwan inserts passages from Tom’s “stories”. It is farcical to see how Serena, the speed-reading femme fatale can arbitrarily select a writer for greatness. Opinions vary as to Tom’s novella, which sounds like a variation on Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic odyssey The Road (2006). Lauded by some, thrashed by others, it goes on to win a major prize, and the reader can almost hear McEwan’s gleeful cackling as he sideswipes capricious reviewers. Ultimately, Sweet Tooth reads as an unfunny spy spoof targeting publishing trends.

Late in the novel Tom is about to read from the end of his work. Serena remarks that it would be a shame to give away the plot. Tom dismisses her fears as “old-fashioned thinking”. Her reply sums up McEwan’s messy new novel: “Remember, I’m a middlebrow.”

The sketchy plot could almost be said to spin on a traditional theme: revenge. Except that this trite, predictable novel doesn’t spin, it waddles along, stuffed with knowing self-regard and not much else.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times

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