“The bare outline of a useful story”: Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth

sweettoothIf Sweet Tooth were not by Ian McEwan (author, as is stressed on the cover of my edition, of Atonement — one of my very favorite recent [that is, post-2000] novels) would I have been disappointed in it? How unfair, in a way, that the burden of great expectations should interfere with my appreciation of this well-crafted, elegantly told tale with its clever premise so smoothly executed. If only books could be read “blind,” as orchestral auditions are sometimes done now — with the author’s identity concealed and so no preconceptions or biases to come between us and the words on the page. And yet I’m not sure that pristine anonymity is quite what we want. When writers raise the bar, isn’t it only fair to test their subsequent efforts not just against the books they already outmatched but against their own previous personal best? Once an ice skater has included a quad, doesn’t every program without one seem just a tad safe, no matter how perfect the triple axels?

And I’d say “safe” is a good word for Sweet Tooth, along with “flat” and “smart” — and, again, only for McEwan would that last term not be entirely praise — smart is the least I expect of him. Knowing Sweet Tooth was “an Ian McEwan” I read along in full expectation of a big twist, a surprise, a treat that would throw everything I thought I knew about the book into some new perspective, or draw together its elements into a shape I hadn’t seen before. By page 300, I was getting downright impatient for this revelatory moment, as on its own surface terms the book I was reading wasn’t giving me much of a thrill. Then when the long-anticipated game-changer arrived, it was so obvious that I realized that in one way or another I had already predicted it. (In case you’re wondering why I didn’t know all about it from reviews, I typically avoid reviews of books I know I’m going to read until after I have a chance to read them for myself. I suppose that’s my own modified version of the audition screens. Now that I’ve finally read Sweet Tooth, I’ll be looking up what other people have said about it.)

The revelations of Sweet Tooth are actually not that different from the writerly twists in Atonement, but the payoffs seemed much slighter to me. It’s true that I didn’t see until I did some careful rereading just how artful Atonement is (one of my favorite details is that Briony turns out to have made the changes recommended by Cyril Connolly at Horizon). Maybe if I reread Sweet Tooth, I’ll find the experience a similarly stirring literary treasure hunt. But I’d need some extrinsic motivation to do that (maybe the other reviews will provide it?) because Sweet Tooth never gripped me: it lacks the gutsiness that lies beneath Atonement‘s opening aestheticism and that comes out into the open during the war sections. Where is the equivalent in Sweet Tooth of the Dunkirk sequences? What here even approaches the wrenching pathos of Atonement‘s elegaic conclusion? The cruelty and devastation we see in Atonement are greater than anything in Sweet Tooth, the people in it at least as guilty of selfishness, greed, and betrayal — but they also love passionately. Sweet Tooth, in contrast, seems all head and no heart; its people (like, as it turns out, the narrative itself) are just petty and manipulative. “I was a novelist without a novel,” Tom reflects, “and now luck had tossed my way a tasty bone, the bare outline of a useful story.” He just hasn’t filled that outline in with the richest tints of humanity.

The novel’s “duplicitous point of view” (in McEwan’s — or rather Tom’s — own phrase) is an escape clause for these complaints, of course. How much of the dully plodding quality of the narrative is excused by the revelation that it’s not as it first seems (or as it seems for 300+ pages)? In particular, how many of Serena’s deficiencies as a narrator and protagonist can be blamed on the actual storyteller? Are her limitations really his limitations — he can’t read her, much less convey her, as a more complex character? In that case it’s not McEwan who’s in any way deficient. If anything, he’s doubly clever because he can play at being someone who’s not as good a novelist as he is, and his imitation is pitch perfect! And the lengthy “reveal,” which  lacks both the urgency and and the beauty of Atonement’s conclusion (“I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end”) and offers instead only dreary petulance (“I told you that it wasn’t anger that set me writing the pages in the parcel in front of you. But there was always an element of tit for tat”) before its final, understatedly flamboyant, flourish — any letdown we might experience is attributable to the same cause. But isn’t McEwan ultimately still accountable for inflicting his imperceptive (and somewhat artless?) doppelganger on us through the fictional author he’s created? How can we credit him with knowing better (and somehow also doing better) if he doesn’t give us a sign? I didn’t pick up on any evidence of metafictional distancing, though maybe I didn’t put the clues together: it’s true there are a number of debates about fiction embedded in the novel that perhaps are meant to reflect sardonically on the kind of novel Tom has finally written.

One way in which McEwan never disappoints is his forensically precise diction: who else would describe oysters as “glistening cowpats of briny viscera”? If I somehow hadn’t known the identity of the author of Sweet Tooth –if he were concealed behind that opaque screen — I think that at that moment, I would have started comparing him to McEwan nonetheless.

3 thoughts on ““The bare outline of a useful story”: Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth

  1. jamesbchester March 30, 2014 / 11:47 am

    While I’m not the fan of McEwan you are, I do know what you mean about one success setting the bar too high for future work. I read a lot of Tennesse Williams plays for a class in graduate school once, including a large selection of his later play, which are not considered anywhere near as good as his early ones. When someone brought this up, the professor countered that the later work should be considered chamber music. Williams was not writing symphonies anymore, but he was writing some terrific chamber music.

    I’ve found this distinction helpful ever since. It makes it possible to see that Cannery Row is a wonderful book even though it not even close to the epic scope of The Grapes of Wrath.


  2. Kerry April 3, 2014 / 3:05 pm

    Yes yes yes! JC Sutcliffe’s review in the Globe had a similar take. As in, you are so good, Ian McEwan, please write a book rather than turning yourself inside out to pull off your marvellous sleights of hand. (My favourite McEwan is Saturday. I read once that one’s first McEwan is always one’s best, and nothing else ever measures up. Which has definitely been the case for me.)


    • Rohan Maitzen April 3, 2014 / 9:29 pm

      I am a big admirer of Saturday also, but now that you mention it, Atonement was my first … maybe there’s something to that!


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