Thursday, 17 January 2013
Double Identity: Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth
By Mary Corrigall
‘What a cheek,” observed Andre Brink coyly, at a recent dinner in Joburg, reflecting on assuming the voice of a woman in his latest novel Philida. Of course, for Brink writing under the guise of a woman, and a slave who suffered at the hands of his own ancestors, comes with the sort of political baggage that Ian McEwan, the British author, does not have to navigate. Yet in Sweet Tooth (Jonathan Cape, distributed by Random House Struik) McEwan is similarly weighed down by, or must justify, the female voice belonging to Serena Frome through which he narrates his spy novel.
In fact, in his idiosyncratic postmodernist manner, this concern is part of the plot, though it only becomes apparent at the novel’s close, when the true identity of the narrator is revealed, prompting you to plunge into the novel again, reading it through the secondary lens of the “actual” narrator.
Then it dawns on you that this is precisely what you have been doing all along; reading Miss Frome’s antics via an awareness that her words are McEwan’s, though at a certain point, when you become absorbed in her story, your cognisance of this filter tends to evaporate, only coming back into focus when his sometimes chauvinistic rendering of her irks.
In Sweet Tooth, McEwan is interested in the act of reading and the (unspoken) contract between the author and reader. This theme finds suitable expression through an amusing, if not ludicrous, double-identity spy plot, that sees the young, but ambitious Serena – she is dying to hop out of the typing pool and into the shadowy world of espionage – dispatched by MI5 to pose as a representative of a foundation that supports persecuted writers. It is part of a ploy to secure and nurture the talent of a young writer who would unwittingly be guided to promote the government’s policies.
The novel is set in the mid-1960s to early-1970s at the height of the Cold War, and they are looking to identify a writer whose work would be likely to critique some of the darker aspects of communism, while perhaps avoiding to highlight some of the failures of democracy. They – the British intelligence sector – are keen to show the CIA, the Americans, how it is done… the Cold War “is a culture war, not just a political and military affair”.
So, while McEwan’s concern is with this peculiar pact between author and reader, he expands on this, superficially toying with the idea of literature shaping attitudes – in other words, the impact of the political novel. In this regard, Serena observes the duplicitousness of writers leading comfortable lives while painting bleak pictures of a dystopian existence. At least this is one of the criticisms she has of the novel that TH Haley produces. He’s her target, her victim, the recipient of sustained financial support from the benevolent foundation. It allows him to quit teaching and graduate from being a part-time short-story writer to a novelist.
Serena prides herself on being an accomplished reader in the sense that she has a voracious appetite, reading anything from Valley of the Dolls to Jane Austen works. “Unimpressed by reputations”, she assesses the writing based on its quality, though she admits to preferring a “form of naïve realism”. She may have naïve tastes, but she likes to think of herself as perspicacious, claiming to be “the first person in the world to understand Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four”.
Yet, like most people who haven’t undertaken an academic study of literature, she has unsophisticated tastes. Her inability to see boundaries between high and low forms of literature may be in line with the postmodern turn but she is disparaging of postmodern literature. She despises self-reflexive, self-conscious writing – “tricksy haggling over the limits of their art” – viewing the crossing and recrossing of “the borders of the imaginary” as a betrayal of the unspoken pact between writers and readers. Put plainly: she wouldn’t be much of a fan of McEwan’s. Perhaps McEwan is addressing his sofa-critics, assuming them to be well-read, opinionated women with unrefined tastes for literature.
For Serena, the fictional world must remain stable, though she is aware it is sustained by falsehood. It is here that the spy/double agent analogy for the relationship between readers and writers sheds light on this tenuous association. Writers are double agents, in the sense that their fiction is their mask, a cipher for their actual identity, though it unwittingly may offer hidden clues to their psychological makeup. Serena deduces all kinds of things about Haley based on his short stories – more than this, she falls in love with him based on this material, believing she understands what makes him tick.
Readers have hidden agendas too. And perhaps, through the act of reading, total immersion in a fictional world, they erase, or temporarily suspend their own identities.
In reality, Serena is the spy, the pretender, thus she unwittingly assumes to subvert the author/reader relationship. Can a reader assume to pull one over the writer?
Serena is plagued by guilt, though she resists revealing her actual identity.
There is also a sense as the story develops that while she has always prided herself on being an accomplished reader, she may be out of her depth. This links up with the idea that, while Serena is well-read, she doesn’t know how to read. Haley’s novel doesn’t tickle her, yet it wins the newly-established Man Booker. In this way, McEwan evokes the disparity between popular and serious fiction, though he has quite uniquely found a way to create work that measures up to both categories.
McEwan is mostly concerned with reading and the relationship between the reader and writer. However, the dynamics between Serena and Haley also shed light on the nature of romantic liaisons, which also require a degree of|fiction to be sustained. Perhaps even this writerly preoccupation of narrating the world through someone else’s eyes is a useful practice in bridging the gap not just between people but the sexes. Certainly, Serena and Haley’s understanding of each other is mediated via imaginative texts, which not only obscure or conceal who they are but illuminate aspects that would be impossible to detect through conventional dialogue.
In the end the surprising twist of the story ensures that Serena remains a fiction of male proportions. McEwan surrenders to the fact that he is unable to transcend this, so ultimately Sweet Tooth functions as a testament to a male rendering of an imagined woman and how men “read” women and how they think women “read” men.
This novel is by far McEwan’s lightest; love here isn’t presented as some dark and warped obsession, as in Enduring Love, nor does he circle some hidden trauma. McEwan is playful and humorous; Serena seems to have unleashed his “softer” side. Despite the humour and whimsy that underpins this spy spoof, it is an intriguing and clever read. It’s the kind of fiction fit for a literary spy.- published on January 13, 2012.