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Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth Twist Ending: It’s Been Done Before

September 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Spoiler warning: This piece necessarily discusses some aspects of Sweet Tooth’s twist ending, but without giving away the complete picture.

When I heard a while back that Ian McEwan was writing a novel set in the ’70s, I wondered if he would touch on similar ground to The Mad Artist, the psychedelic and mystical hippy scenes, perhaps drawing on his own experience as a one-time hippy. Born in 1948, the same year as Leaf Fielding, McEwan is just the right age to have hit the Summer of Love running, and indeed he did take acid and do the hippy trail to Afghanistan. In the cover photo of my 1980 edition of First Love, Last Rites he sports long hair, a thick dark beard and with his large round glasses, he has an Allen Ginsberg owlish look. But I was to be proved both wrong and right in my supposition, for whilst Sweet Tooth isn’t about drugs or psychedelia, it does uncannily resemble The Mad Artist in being about writing and our respective early dabblings in the art.

McEwan tells the story of Sweet Tooth by means of a female narrator, the ditsy blonde Serena Frome, who succeeds in being both dumb and intellectual at one and the same time – a splendid creation. After having an affair with an older man who is an MI5 agent, Serena gets recruited into the service, and because of her wide knowledge of contemporary literature, she is given the job of inducting up-and-coming writers into Operation Sweet Tooth, where a dummy literary foundation gives out grants to writers in the expectation that they will take an anti-communist stance and so help the West in the war-on-ideas part of the Cold War. But the caveat is the writers must remain ignorant of where the money is really coming from, so when Serena hooks up with emergent novelist T. H. Haley, persuades him to take the shilling and then commences a love affair with him, she must maintain secrecy and therefore live a lie.

For a ‘spy novel’ Sweet Tooth is low on the kind of action we associate with espionage, at times verging on the catatonic in the area of pace. Instead we get finely detailed observation of the nuances of human interaction, how one personality affects another, and the amorous and literary implications of such chemistry when sex and writing figure so strongly in the brew. Really the spy angle is mainly window dressing and the real subject of Sweet Tooth is how writing comes to be written. In this respect it’s a subtle piece of metafiction, and in the fashion of that genre McEwan enjoys himself playing endless nudge-wink games with the reader. For example Serena expresses dislike for Borges and Barth, Pynchon and Cortázar and Gaddis ‘who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life. Or on the contrary to insist that life was fiction anyway. Only writers, I thought, were ever in danger of confusing the two’ – a delicious irony considering she herself is the filling in a metafictional club sandwich.

The bulk of McEwan’s nudge-winkery is carried by his ’70s author Tom Haley, who, like McEwan attended Sussex University and started his career penning audacious short stories. As we learn their plots, filtered through Serena’s psyche, many of Haley’s stories have a familiar ring. One is called ‘Pawnography’; another concerns an affair between an isolated man and a showroom dummy; still another involves a ‘kept ape’. These are all features of the pieces in McEwan’s second collection In Between the Sheets, and not only the stories themselves but also the milieu of their creation, the ’70s London literary scene, is accurately recreated. Real figures appear, such as the poet and editor Ian Hamilton who published several of  McEwan’s stories in New Review, and also McEwan’s publisher at Cape, Tom Maschler, and they intermingle easily with the fictional protagonists. The newly emerged Martin Amis is also discussed, though he remains offstage from Serena’s gaze.

Personally I enjoyed these parts of the novel far more than the earlier ones, with their carefully researched burgeoning detail on the history of literary espionage and the obligatory info dumping of early ’70s politics – the three-day week, the miners’ strikes and the IRA. I identified with that artful blending of fact and fiction, and the controlled swerves into semi-autobiography that resonate strongly with memoir writers, even though we’re supposed to be writing ‘non-fiction’. Ultimately at the end of the day all writing is a construction. But as I neared the novel’s climax, that sense of familiarity with the territory became déjà vu and then got stronger and stronger till it turned into an almighty rush.

For if Tom Haley starts out as the young Ian McEwan – rewriting the stories from In Between the Sheets – he then transmogrifies into a figure who uncannily evokes the young me – using ongoing real-life events as the basis for a novel, which will simply track them without fictional embellishment: a ‘reality novel’ so to speak, which I write about in my memoir. Read more…

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