Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

McEwan certainly had fun writing this 2012 novel. It recalls the finale of a Christie tour de force, which I did anticipate here, but only just before the ending. Perhaps because it was the kind of ending another writer might anticipate.

This is the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) an innocent young graduate who has an affair with a married college tutor named Tony Canning, a suitor who jilts her but recommends her for a job with the domestic counterintelligence unit, MI5. The main portion of the novel is about that job, in which she is assigned to work with a writer friendly to the Western allies, Tom Haley, a writer that MI5 agrees to support financially without his knowledge in the hope that this writer will create works sympathetic to the English cause. The project is given the name of Sweet Tooth, presumably because such money is so tantalizing, but it also reflects for me the artificiality and lack of substance behind this novel.

The novel’s momentum begins on the very first page when Serena confesses that, “Almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

The secret mission to support the writer takes place in the early 1970s, when English politics was in turmoil, there was unrest in Ireland and a Suez crisis, and the Arabs threatened the economy by raising the cost of oil. But while this political environment adds texture to the novel, it has no impact on Serena’s mission.

We read, however, to learn how that mission by Serena turned into a love affair. And it is a measure of McEwan’s craft that he makes her reaction to Tom believable. For Serena is never sure of her future, or of her professionalism, when she is drawn emotionally to this client, and never sure of him if she should tell him her role in providing money. In fact, she is ordered not to tell him. Not until the very end, however, do we realize how significant is that forty-year gap between the events being described and the publication of what we are reading.

The complications of Serena falling in love with the innocent Tom, and being ordered not to tell him why she has entered his life, introduces the main theme of this novel. This is the complexity that results from deceit and hypocrisy—especially when the deceit and hypocrisy has an honorable purpose. Indeed, such honorable purposes go back to Canning’s initial betrayal, as well as to Serena’s potential betrayal of Tom and his eventual betrayal of her. And, of course, to McEwan’s betrayal, in a sense, of the reader.

As I was reading this novel, it seemed to be a lightweight entry in the McEwan canon. It simply offered the complexity of a love affair against an espionage background. Would she or wouldn’t she, reveal to him her true role in MI5? And would he or wouldn’t he, accept her love as real? I was also bothered by the extensive descriptions of Tom’s shorter fiction. What was the purpose of this? For the examples were not that interesting. But I had underestimated McEwan. The answer would come in his surprise ending.

This work truly captures the infighting that takes place within governmental departments, in this case among counterintelligence people whose job is to create artificial worlds in order to deceive others. And who encourage betrayal in order to achieve their own ends. The virtues of truth vs. the benefits of deceit. But it also exposes such hypocrisy, and it presents people on both sides of the issue. It is reminiscent of LeCarre’s portrait of the espionage business.

While Kakutani’s review in the Times is more negative than mine is, she does have a point when she writes: “McEwan seems to want to make the reader think about the lines between life and art, and the similarities between spying and writing.” In other words, that life is a creation just as is art, a creation by ourselves of our own life; and that there is also deception in both writing and spying, in the creation of worlds that are not factually real.

My reaction is that making this point through a love affair is not giving the crux of Serena’s dilemma enough substance. Destroying one’s own love affair is no match for destroying the lives of other human beings. As an aside, I would also note that Kakutani has tended recently to summarize a book’s content rather than truly analyze it—simply conveying her evaluation in a few telling phrases, such as using “a clever but annoying novel” and “self-conscious contrivance,” to describe this work.

Serena’s character certainly reflects this novel’s approach to artificial reality. She reads a lot of fiction, which is an artificial world. She also says she reacts to characters rather than to themes or descriptions. And this novel’s style also reflects that. A political atmosphere, yes, it does have. But this work is primarily based on the nuances of character, such as in her emotional reactions to the men she meets, to Canning, to her bosses in MI5, and, eventually, to Tom, the man she loves.

On another level of her character, she prefers Jacqueline Susann to Jane Austin, which challenges the reader’s perception of her as a reliable judge of fiction, especially Tom’s fiction, which, as I said, McEwan later explains. But this serves primarily to cap off the metafictional aspect of this novel. For critics have noted that Tom’s fiction often mirrors the early fiction of McEwan himself. Which might be taken as self-criticism, but also, perhaps, of laziness by McEwan.

While disappointing overall, this novel does not turn me off McEwan’s future fiction. I simply would hope that he selects a more significant theme and probes more deeply into it. He can still deal with fiction and reality, but on the level of Atonement, not of Sweet Tooth. I am also not a fan of metafiction, unless it serves to convey an interpretation of mankind, rather then, as here, an O’Henry surprise. (February, 2016)

Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh

How witty and tongue-in-cheek can one get? This is a delightful novel written in 1938. It is a satire on the field of journalism, conveyed through the experiences of William Boot, a naive nature writer with no ambition who is hired in error as a foreign correspondent by the Daily Beast (now I know what inspired Tina Brown) and then sent to the fictional east African country of Ishmaelia.

The confusion begins when William Boot is contacted instead of fiction writer John Boot by the foreign editor, Salter, and the managing editor, both incomptents who are beholden to their authoritarian publisher, Lord Copper. The confusion lasts until the very end, when John is rewarded instead of William and Uncle Theodore is accepted to replace William.

But not only are the Beast people incompetent, so are the competing papers and fellow foreign correspondents that William meets in Ishmaelia. These correspondents are easily road-blocked and then sent on wild-goose chases by the local government of Ishmaelia, whose own actions are arbitrary and incompetent. Waugh, of course, is having fun with all of these people—with London society which fumbles it influences, with the newspaper editors out to please their boss, with the gullible foreign correspondents, and with the doctrinaire Ishmaelia government, a country run by one family, the Jacksons.

Some today will look back at the description of the men who run this country, and accuse Waugh of racism. Actually, however, he is having the same fun with these incompetent blacks as he is with London society and the journalistic profession. Such satire in those days, the thirties, was acceptable; but we look at such matters differently today.

The bitterest comment on the press is when both the bosses and the correspondents think that nothing is happening in Ishmaelia, so they had better come up with something to justify their time there. William, however, is too naive to understand this, and has to be taught by friendly companions both the hidden political life in that country and the meaning of the cables that he is receiving from his London bosses. Until the Scoop of the title—the scoop of what is really happening in Ishmaelia—has to be explained to him by others. A great example of his incompetence is when he meets the British ambassador and fails to inform him of what he has just learned about the plot against the Ishmaelia government—and fails to get his own resulting scoop in return.

This is Waugh at his finest, as he looks down on all these people, turning them into incompetent fools. It is perhaps characteristic of this author, who will later be revealed to be secure in his conservative faith, that here he writes with the smug attitude of a self-satisfied member of society. Unlike Greene.

Which may help to explain why Greene used his faith as the core of his early novels, because he had doubts about it; and these doubts provided the (internal) conflict that is at the heart of literature. Whereas, since Waugh had no doubts about his faith, he turned to society for his subject matter. And so, where Greene is deeply involved with his characters, Waugh is quite aloof.

The greatest fun with this novel is at the beginning, when the confusion sends the unprepared William to Africa, and at the end, when the Beast tries to reward him for his success. My favorite scene, in fact, is at the end, when Salter travels to rural England to William’s home in order to persuade him to continue working for the Beast and to attend Lord Copper’s banquet in his honor. His hike from the railroad station, his arrival unkempt (the family thinks he is drunk), and his meeting of this eccentric family—all this is delightful, Waugh’s devastating portrait of rural English society.

William’s success abroad is, of course, none of his doing. The result is a lot of byways in the early portion of his travels in Ishmaelia; and it slows the novel until the revolutionary activity is revealed. In the meantime, we are introduced to Katchen, a Polish girl without a country who is married (sort of) to a German who has disappeared into the interior of Ishmaelia.

Katchen is the “love” interest for William, who thinks he loves her but is not really interested in love. Neither is she, of course, except to get the Beast’s money she can finagle through William. Interest picks up when her husband returns, and they escape uproariously in a canoe William gives them. Her presence works, however, because her husband is involved in the search for minerals that interests both the Germans and the Russians and motivates the basic story, their attempts to take over the government of Ishmaelia.

And then there is the mysterious “Baldwin,” who travels incognito with William on his way to Africa, is helped by William, and then parachutes into Ishmaelia to save the day for the government—and William. He also provides an opportunity for Waugh, through exaggeration, to needle the Soviets.

Waugh spent time in Africa covering the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and this novel is said to be inspired by that experience. Further speculation relates many of these fictional characters to real journalists, from Lord Beaverbrook (Lord Copper) to John Gunther (Jakes).

Waugh wraps up the fate of his various characters in the final two pages. It is clever and somewhat arbitrary, but it works, not least because it is in keeping with the aloof style of the rest of the novel.

To sum up, this is marvelous Waugh—to be appreciated especially by journalists, who are the victims of his satire. But he spreads the satire all around: to politicians, to high society, to publishers, to empire builders, to dictators, even to the Communists. The work is both witty and funny, witty in style, funny in subject matter. And most of all, its characters act believably even as they act deviously or stupidly. The naïve William is truly three-dimensional. The remaining characters are not, but they are alive on these pages because they are so incompetent. (June, 2013)