A penis in pickle, and a dreadful wife made to vanish into another dimension by means of an esoteric yoga pose. A narrator who rapes and murders his wife, gratified that the two climaxes coincide (‘I came as she died. That much I can say with pride. I know her death was a moment of intense pleasure to her’). When he wakes up he vomits on the corpse, a reflex of horror and remorse that amounts to a further assault. Ian McEwan’s first reputation (in the 1970s) was as a writer of scrupulously perverse short stories, an output which placed him in a loose grouping with Martin Amis, labelled the ‘neo-nasties’. The nastiness has long since been disowned though the occasional glint of relished cruelty survives – a body part under the furniture in Enduring Love, an almost witty bomb blast in Atonement – to prevent the reader from feeling too cosy.
Any residual nastiness in the new novel Sweet Tooth has been curiously displaced, onto the cover of the book. I don’t mean the photographic image, which shows a glamorous woman in a red dress, paperwork in her hand (plausibly a file or official document), looking over her shoulder at an ominous male presence at the end of a corridor. I mean the texture of the actual lamination used on the dust jacket, almost sticky yet almost slimy, creating a subliminal urge to wash the hands that have been in contact with it. This is an effect no ebook can hope to duplicate.
The blurb of Sweet Tooth amplifies the clear genre signals of intrigue and danger sent by the cover image (the back panel shows the same corridor, with the man in a slightly more neutral pose, though the woman has disappeared), and brings issues of reliability into play, though with a twist hinting at romantic possibilities: ‘Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage … trust no one.’ Everything conspires to promise a high-class thriller, though the 1970s setting suggests murky dealings – with John le Carré being thanked, under the non-pen name of David Cornwell, for ‘irresistible reminiscences’ – rather than any particular glamour.
Serena Frome (the pronunciation of her name, Froom, poshly at odds with its spelling), both intelligent and beautiful, is the daughter of a bishop. Originally her gift is for maths, a subject she finds easy, though she is also a compulsive reader of fiction. Urged to take her talent further by her unassertive mother in a rare moment of push, she studies maths at Cambridge. The experience is a dead end for her academically, her mathematical powers showing up as modest in this unsparingly competitive context, but other options open up thanks to her affair with an older man, a history don. After graduation she is recruited by MI5, and in due course joins an operation called Sweet Tooth, which discreetly channels secret funds to writers who can be expected, without actual manipulation and in ignorance of the source of subsidy, to promote suitable values. Most are writers of non-fiction, but it’s Serena’s job to recruit a short-story writer with real potential as a novelist. The choice falls on T. H. (Tom) Haley.
McEwan has incorporated genre elements in his fiction often enough before, without letting them predominate. Imported genre energy used with less skill can be destabilising, a pumping of the accelerator made problematic by the attendant wrenching effect on the steering wheel. Car chases as such aren’t on offer in his work, though there is a set-piece scene of fancy driving in The Child in Time. In two very different books, The Innocent and Solar, the plot draws momentum from the convenient catastrophe of an abrupt and compromising death from head injury. This, though, is the first time that a McEwan novel has signed up to a genre, as definitely as Serena signs up with MI5. Yet Sweet Tooth, under however many layers of camouflage, is by some way his most literary novel, the least driven by subject-matter, and it’s the genre elements that disappoint. True, in one early scene there’s a definite throb of genre excitement. Serena, dispatched with a female colleague, humiliatingly enough, to give a safe house a thorough, virtually industrial cleaning, finds a scrap of paper with a significant word on it, near a mattress deeply stained with blood in the place where a head would naturally lie. The book develops, and it turns on its axis, but it doesn’t build tension. There are dutiful tremors of atmospheric and narrative anticipation, but they rank low on the Richter scale: ‘I stood there watching him, wondering whether he was telling the truth,’ say, or ‘I thought Shirley and I were once more the best of friends.’ But there’s no grinding of plate against plate, and certainly nothing in the way of eruption. Even the bloodstain eventually loses its status as a sinister emblem. Yet this isn’t an author unattuned to the set piece. If anything, the critical response to his work has moved in the other direction, detecting an excessive investment of energy in early, self-contained sections (the runaway balloon in Enduring Love, the Arctic expedition in Solar), to the detriment of the books as wholes.
McEwan has displayed a wide variation over his writing career, in terms of the relative level of ambition in individual books, from the rather portentous Atonement, straining for Masterpiece status (this is admittedly very much a minority verdict), to the throwaway Amsterdam, his how-did-that-happen 1998 Booker Prize winner. Sweet Tooth occupies a comfortable middle ground in these terms. His level of craft can be inconsistent, too, with the most ramshackle production to date, Solar, following the most tightly controlled, On Chesil Beach, a book which behaved like a potential classic in the way it somehow made itself necessary, seeming to create the gap it then filled. Sweet Tooth is evenly managed, and its lack of a substantial centre is clearly intentional, however puzzling.
The book provides a convincing portrait of the 1970s, a period of dullness and extremity no less strange for being well within living memory. It addresses many questions interestingly, without particular intensity. Does art change anything? Is institutional support for approved spokesmen always wrong, or only when it’s secret? After all, the Foreign Office funds the World Service (though not beyond the financial year 2014-15), with no loss of perceived independence or prestige. Can a relationship be built on trust without full disclosure? Is the creative power of a writer separate from the personality? The book’s epigraph (‘If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person’), from Timothy Garton Ash’s book about his Stasi file, seems to offer an absolutely solid starting-point. Surely this is exactly the sort of thing that novels are about? Well, yes, grey areas come with the territory; more than that, grey areas are the territory, but still this epigraph seems less like a stepping-stone than a trapdoor. The words that immediately precede it, after all, are the book’s dedication (To Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011), and Hitchens didn’t find it difficult to identify enemies or to believe in their essential badness.
It doesn’t seem too bold to suggest that the book isn’t deeply concerned with moral problems, and may not be aspiring to depth in the first place. (This is not the same as calling it shallow.) It sets out, though with no announcement of the fact, to open up a particular sort of imaginative, even imaginary space, though there are McEwan themes that seem to hover over it without actually manifesting themselves. Cathy Raine in the 1980 television play The Imitation Game (played by Harriet Walter), like Frome, comes to grief in a male world of power games and secrets. Serena too might be seen as a living reproach to the system that has crushed her, but though the first paragraph of Sweet Tooth announces her disgrace it has been transfigured by the time it arrives.
A heroine with a maths degree and an obsession with reading novels is an obvious way in to a subject that has reliably engaged McEwan in the past, the overlap (and the lack of it) between science and art. Inside a novel, naturally, literature is unlikely to be entirely outmanoeuvred: the hero of Saturday may be a neurosurgeon, but when a neurologically damaged intruder threatens the family home it is his daughter’s speciality, poetry, that is able to shift the balance away from danger.
At one point in Sweet Tooth Tom Haley asks Serena to tell him something ‘counterintuitive, paradoxical’ about maths. (‘Counterintuitive’ seems wrong for the period, but even if it is an anachronism it’s the soft spongy type, attributable to a story being narrated from a later period, with retrospective language osmosis.) She obliges him with a brainteaser – it’s generally known as the ‘Monty Hall problem’ – that was ‘going the rounds’ among Cambridge mathematicians when she was a student. This is a little cheeky on McEwan’s part, since the paradox was first proposed in a letter to the magazine American Statistician in 1975, and Serena would have to have been well connected in international maths circles to get wind of it before that date, but its maths aspect is older, and McEwan could have kept the paradox in its guise as the Three Prisoners problem if he wanted to critic-proof his book to a higher specification.
That’s not really the point. Tom, once convinced of a fact of probability that is strongly resisted by common sense, gets feverishly excited and writes a story to exploit it. Serena, reading his draft, realises that she hasn’t explained it with the clarity necessary for a layman. He has misunderstood – so she rewrites the story to clear up the solecisms and to square science with art. This is where the novel departs not from statistical probability but from simple human possibility. Tom incorporates Serena’s rewrite without comment, as a matter of course, though we know that writers, whether seasoned or just starting out, seethingly resent the suggestions for improvements made by professionals, let alone amateurs.
The incident falls very flat. Occasionally it has happened in the past that McEwan, whose strong sense of what can be managed has protected his longevity in a capricious marketplace, forgets those limitations and forces a scene into existence no matter what. Something similar happens in Solar, in some slightly excruciating passages where he tries to get fresh mileage out of a well-worn story involving a disputed bag of crisps, as if by going at it again and again he must eventually wring out some insight of his own. A successful writer may be given the keys to the city, but he can’t expect to open every door or sleep in every bed.
The dialogue between Tom and Serena at this point drops a strong hint about the inner workings of the book:
‘I get it! Serena, I understand how it works. Everything you were saying, it’s so simple. It just popped into place, like, you know, that drawing of a what’s-it cube.’
‘And I can do something with it.’
‘Yes, why not …’
The Necker cube is a line drawing showing all 12 edges of a transparent cube. The observer’s mind can’t help assembling it as a three-dimensional object, but can do so in two incompatible ways. An example of a novel that uses the Necker-effect would be Coetzee’s Booker Prize winner Disgrace, the immediate successor to Amsterdam. It seemed to me as I read it for review that the book was a single story made up of two charged grids superimposed, a narrative of self-destruction and a narrative of redemption laid on top of each other but having no prescribed polarity overall (up to the last page).
It helps that a proof or early copy of a novel is like a virgin snowfield, as long as you throw away the maps, discard any press release and ignore the blurb till you’ve finished the book. Despite appearances reading this way is a gloriously free experience. Later the book becomes tracked over, footsteps no longer crunch but slither, and it develops a morphic resonance with any number of assumptions that may not be the author’s. Once a book has been publicly portrayed in a certain way, it’s no longer ‘really’ about what it once was, or might have been. Of course reading in this way, with resistance to the moralising impulse central to the experience of narrative, is a luxury amounting almost to a perversion. If Coetzee was conducting a literary experiment his experimental subjects were unaware of it, innocently assembling their preferred version of the cube without realising they were exercising a choice.
The Necker-effect in Sweet Tooth is hard to ignore. Autobiographical material begins to surface, with increasing obviousness, but there is nowhere in the novel for it to belong. At first the experience is of a pleasurable ripple, as when one of Serena’s MI5 masters says that ‘sooner or later, one of our own is going to be chairing this new Booker Prize committee.’ It isn’t difficult to take in the fact that you’re reading a book written by a Booker Prize-winning author, without being unduly disengaged from the fictional situation.
Later, when Serena does her rewrite of Tom’s story ‘Probable Adultery’, things become more complicated:
Tom had taken control of a subject (‘only a fool would stay with his first choice’!) which he barely understood, and tried to make it his own. If he incorporated my suggestions, then it would surely be his own. By a sleight of hand he made [his character] Terry far better at maths than his creator. At one level it was obvious enough how these separate parts were tipped in and deployed. The mystery was how they were blended into something cohesive and plausible.
The unstable pleasure of reading a passage like this doesn’t come from being submerged in the point of view, but from partially surfacing through the imagined layers. Here is a seasoned professional conjuring up the presumptuous thoughts of an innocent presuming to meddle with the words of a talented beginner. Though Serena talks of blending and cohesion, the material is beginning to separate, to delaminate.
The Necker-effect becomes a Necker-flicker when Tom Haley’s stories encroach on McEwan’s own early publications. Tom writes a story called ‘Pawnography’, and the first story of In Between the Sheets is called ‘Pornography’. Tom writes a story about an ape with the power of speech and a woman novelist with writer’s block, not so different from the story after ‘Pornography’ in the same volume, ‘Reflections of a Kept Ape’. It would hardly stretch McEwan’s inventiveness to steer Tom towards a different harbour in the world of publishing from his own: to have him snapped up by Deutsch rather than Cape, providing the cue for an admiring sketch of Diana Athill, perhaps, rather than Tom Maschler. So, again, the effect is strongly intended, though bizarre. Haley and McEwan don’t blend into a composite. Instead, Serena and her author begin to alternate in the reader’s construction of the narrative cube, with the author tending to drive the character out. When ‘Serena’ writes, ‘I said I didn’t like tricks, I liked life as I knew it re-created on the page,’ the lovely heroine is likely to be displaced by the mental image of a man in a striped shirt with glasses and a wary stare.
There’s more destabilisation in store. The famous story from First Love, Last Rites featuring the pickled penis and the woman manipulated into disappearing was called ‘Solid Geometry’, but Sweet Tooth before it finishes offers something more like topology, specifically the topology of Escher’s etching The Print Gallery.
It has often been pointed out that McEwan’s novels, however substantial, tend to resemble short stories, in the way they are constructed round a single irrevocable moment separating Before and After: the jealous husband suddenly dead in The Innocent, the wrong letter being sent in Atonement. (The achievement of On Chesil Beach was to stretch out and inhabit that moment for once, instead of using it as a pivot.) There’s no sign of that in this new book, which is steadily incremental, but another characteristic of the short story is in evidence: a teleological if not eschatological tendency, so that a short story’s ending may provide not just some but all of its meaning.
Sweet Tooth is the narrative equivalent of a Möbius strip or Klein bottle, the first a real object, the second an imaginary one, capable of representation in two dimensions but not three, but when it’s novels you’re talking about, the distinction between real and imaginary is itself unreal, and constantly being renegotiated. The book promises the sombre intricacy of le Carré but delivers something closer to the metaphysical elegance of Borges or Calvino. In theory this is a triumphant shedding of genre limitations, but it’s hard to imagine that a large constituency will applaud. Fiction can never be based on an equal partnership between reader and writer, but it does involve trust. When a contract is changed by one party after being signed, the reaction of the other may be as aggrieved in literature as it would be in life (when it would be time to call the lawyers in). The obligation to make us care about the fate of a central endangered character isn’t optional, and a meta-thriller is no thriller at all. Sweet Tooth isn’t at all a failure, but its success is of a very quixotic kind. This is a Klein bottle you can drink out of, but who will acquire the taste when the vessel takes precedence over its contents? Most readers would rather have a nasty shock than an abstract surprise.