Summary Judgement: Sweet Tooth — Ian McEwan
For a novel about a spy, Sweet Tooth is surprisingly slack. Maybe it’s slack in defense of realism. The cause eludes me, since the writing is as customarily crisp as the story isn’t. Excellent quotes are easy, from the first page, with this description of Serena’s father, an Anglican Bishop: his “belief in God was muted and reasonable, did not intrude much on our lives and was just sufficient to raise him smoothly through the Church hierarchy and install us in a comfortable Queen Anne House.” The parents are distant to the point of barely believable indifference: much later in the novel, Serena thinks, “Would the Bishop even notice I’d been away?” She’s free of parents, like an orphan in a 19th Century novel or a teenager in a contemporary TV show.
That doesn’t detract from the aforementioned beauty, like this, to go back to the second page: “We liked to think of ourselves as bad girls, but actually we were rather good.” Serena, on learning about the difficulties of writing, “went for important walks,” the silliness and accuracy of the phrase “important walks” working so well to conceptualize her state of mind and what many people with intellectual dispositions end up doing.
But the beauty of sentences eventually feels like backdrop when a second or third act fails to develop. The novel ends with a great, revisionary secret, the sort of secret that powers PhD dissertations more often than it does readerly love. We’ve seen these surprise techniques before—most notably in Atonement, but also, after a fashion, On Chesil Beach.
Like many writers, including this one, McEwan, through Serena, is at least interested in and perhaps obsessed by what reading and books do to people. Serena works in books as much as she’s a spy and sleeps with authors (which is the sort of practice I’d like to encourage). She notes what she reads and how she reads it. The book becomes about a love of books, but it does so to the point that the occupant of this book becomes dull. What does the book talk add up to? I’m a person sympathetic to books and book talk, but in Sweet Tooth the answer is “not much.” It becomes easy to lose focus midway through. Sure, for Serena, reading is how she both constructs and understands her world, but then you have to, you know, go do something. That’s not to say that she isn’t artful or funny. Consider this problem, about Jeremy, Serena’s first lover who turns out, predictably, to prefer men:
I wanted him to have a secret and shameful desire that only I could satisfy. I wanted to make this lofty, courteous man all mind. Did he want to smack my backside, or have me smack his? Was he wanting to try on my underwear? This mystery obsessed me when I was away from him, and made it all the harder to stop thinking about him when I was supposed to be concentrating on the maths. Colette was my escape.
Colette was her escape, but into what and from what? From mysteries? From something she can’t quite articulate, perhaps. And Serena, as a narrator, is also willing to ostentatiously tell us that she’s older and wiser now: “What I took to be the norm—taut, smooth, supple—was the transient special case of youth. To me, the old were a separate species, like sparrows or foxes. And now, what I would give to be fifty-four again!” This intrusion of the future self reminds us that we’re reading something from the future of events, with two pairs of eyes: the eyes of the undergraduate Serena and the eyes of the much older Serena, imagining her younger self from a position of greater articulacy and knowledge. Done too often, though, it becomes tedious. The notes in my copy trail off as the novel advances, and as I hope for Serena to become more than an acted-upon reporter of events. Her own life feels like it happened to someone else. Later in the novel, much later, the reason for this is revealed. But the view at the end of a long trail doesn’t always redeem the journey. The reason is clever, cerebral, not expected and not forced, and doesn’t make me want to read Sweet Tooth again, unless the next reading is part of some academic project about the usual sorts of academic things.
Serena says this of her reading habit:
All thanks to my mother, I didn’t stop reading. I’d never read much poetry or any plays at school, but I think I had more pleasure out of novels than my university friends, who were obliged to sweat over weekly essays on Middlemarch or Vanity Fair. I raced through the same books, chatted about them perhaps, if there was someone around who could tolerate my base level of discourse, then I moved on. Reading was my way of not thinking about maths. More than that (or do I mean less?), it was my way of not thinking.
Reading can be a powerful way of not thinking. I know from experience, even if most people think of reading as a highbrow, intensely intellectual activity these days. It isn’t, necessarily. And the assigned essay can be a chore instead of a pleasure. Serena wants it to be a pleasure:
My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes, and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between—I gave them all the same rough treatment.
Simple intellectual and erotic needs might be easier to fulfill than complex ones, in one sense, but also harder, in the way that a simple task executed perfectly may be harder than a complex task executed with a margin for error. Still, Serena should have known that it isn’t vulgar to want love and marriage and plot. It’s vulgar that professors and highbrow critics might make her think it is vulgar to want those things, to want fiction that might be, to use that overused term, “relatable.” That one might be able to follow effectively. Serena isn’t a close reader, or someone practicing towards being a professional.
But she is someone who learns how to be through books, which makes her different from someone who learns how to be from in other ways, or someone who never learns how to be. She says, “I caused amusement among my Newnham friends studying English when I told them that Valley of the Dolls was as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. They laughed, they teased me for months. And they hadn’t read a line of Susann’s work.” Her friends are snobby and dismissive. Given the choice between snobby and unrefined but passionate, I’ll take the latter. The difference between those becomes a running issue, as when Serena begins to write a little column, and, like bloggers, something unfortunate happens: “I had written half a dozen jaunty pieces when something went wrong. Like many writers who come by a little success, I began to take myself too seriously.”
It’s a narrow act, the stance that straddles too serious and not serious enough. When I’m waffling between them, I try for “not serious enough:” after all, we’re talking about fiction here, not life and death. But for Serena the two become bound together because of her work. That’s an interesting theme; if only the plot were drilled more vigorously through the loam of Serena’s mind and story.