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)

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

This is a good novel. No one should say surprisingly, for Rowling is a born storyteller and a solid technician in this 2012 work. What I admired from the beginning was her creation of life in a small British town, Pagford, from the political confrontations to the family jealousies to the juvenile insecurities. And from the class warfare to the social ills to the generational conflicts.

The novel begins when a pillar of the town, Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies. This calls for a vote to replace him on the parish council—which introduces political conflict, since the dead man wanted to keep the town together rather than exile a poor community to another jurisdiction. To explore this conflict, we meet the families on both sides. There are Howard and Shirley Mollison, who run the council and want to rid the town of the poor, including a local clinic; their son Miles, a candidate following his father’s wishes; and Miles’ wife, Samantha. There are the Prices, whose son Andrew resents his father Simon and his decision to run for the council to take advantage of potential graft. And there is Andrew’s pal Stuart (Fats), whose father, Colby, is running to preserve the policies of the dead man.

Beyond the political intrigue, there is social conflict, centered on the poor Weeden family. Daughter Krystal is a teenager whose mother Terri is a self-centered prostitute and a heroin addict. Krystal adores her three-year-old brother, Robbie, whom her mother neglects. The daughter is the novel’s most fully developed character, and Rowling seems to identify with her insecurities, her contradictions, and yet her sound family sense. The Weedon’s friendly social worker is Kay Bawden, who has a beautiful daughter Gaia. Kay has come to Pagford hoping to find security with Gavin Hughes, a local lawyer. Finally, there is Parminda Jawanda, a doctor with a conscience, a handsome husband, and a plain, insecure daughter. Sukhvinder.

This is a complicated roster of characters, actually eight families, to follow during the town’s political and social intrigue. And it is complicated further by the five children. Andrew is buddies with Fats, and is in love with Gaia, who is best buddies with Sukhvinder. Meanwwhile, Fats has a continuing affair with Krystal, who wants to have a child in order to escape her family. And the still further complication is that each of these five children has a major problem with his or her parents.

In sum, I was impressed and absorbed by this portrait of a town and its families in conflict. But then “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” enters, leaving scandalous messages about the parish council and its candidates on the council’s website. Now, the more significant plotting of the novel truly begins, for these messages are being left, we know, by the three children, Andrew, Fats, and Sukhvinder, to revenge themselves on their parents. It is a unique plot device that is credible and certainly is in keeping with modern technology, yet it also reflects, in its way, the hand of the author—an author who has just written a classic series of novels about teenagers, the Harry Potter series.

And, indeed, the rest of this novel revolves around the actions of these five teenagers. The political conflict and election now recedes into the background, except for one argumentative but anti-climactic parish council meeting. The novel’s pace also quickens, as the children’s actions replace the verbal altercations of the adults. The final action centers on the desperate actions of Krystal and their impact on her family and on her fellow teenagers.

As I began reading this novel, it seemed that Rowling was determined to convince critics that she could write a true novel for adults. This came across from her portrait of this town, its political situation, and its various families. I sensed she was now writing from a life she knew, as serious writers do, rather than from a life she imagined. Toward the end, however, while I still considered it a valid, serious novel, it seemed to me that a commercial aspect, an emphasis on plot more than on relationships, was seeping in. Finally, the emphasis on the children at the end seemed to reflect the type of characters, the record has shown, she is most comfortable with.

It is this emphasis on the children at the end that most concerns me. The novel began as a portrait of a town, of its hypocrisies and its prejudices. This legitimately included the frustrations of its teenagers with their parents. But these frustratione began to drive the plot, and the reader gradually isn’t sure where the emphasis is meant to lie. Finally, the action of one teenager to take all the blame for the website messages and the death of another seems insufficiently prepared for, seems insufficiently motivated.

Perhaps the one aspect that I agree with in Kakutani’s very negative Times review is that there are no good characters here that the reader can identify with, as there would naturally be in an average small town. All are intended to come alive through their weaknesses. The social worker Kay is a good person at heart, but she is ineffective, and emerges as inconsequential. And Krystal’s goodness is outweighed by her anti-social rebellion. The result is an expose of this town more than a recreation of it. And a novel that leaves us depressed more than exhilarated, having introduced us to characters we would not really want as friends or neighbors.

On the other hand, the teenagers are more interesting as individuals than the adults. The prejudices of the adults could be considered more stereotypical, whereas the teenagers have their own individual problems and react to one another, and talk to one another, in their own individual way. As a result, we get to know them better, understand them better, and so sympathize with them better, even if we are disturbed by much of their conduct and remain unconvinced by their final actions and final fate.

To sum up, this is an admirable, old-fashioned novel about small-town English life, but it is peopled by unsympathetic characters and somewhat manipulated by the author to convey a message of social injustice and personal hypocrisy. It is dominated in the end by children, with whom she seems more comfortable, and who perhaps reflect the experience and emotions of her own past. (November, 2014)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

I have not read this 1880 novel for more than 60 years. Why return to it? Because I wanted to evaluate it from the literary perspective I have today. It is still a masterpiece, of course, but I now realize that the key to the novel lies in its initial words:

“Notice. Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Because, of course, this work is filled with a motive, a moral, and a plot. In fact, these factors reveal the purpose of the novel. Its motive is to contrast the good of following one’s conscience with the usual, and accepted,, behavior of society. Its moral is to reveal the hypocrisy of saying or believing one thing and doing another. And its plot is to entertain us while exposing us to the human contradictions in all of us.

Twain addresses most of these contradictions through the issue of slavery. But he also explores other varieties of human deceit: when Huck disguises himself as a girl, when Huck convinces Jim their separation was just a dream, when a family feud rises between two families whose individuals do not hate each other, when confidence men pretend to be royalty and then swindle their victims, and even when Huck pretends to be Tom. With each scene, Twain is playing with the contradictions between belief and reality, and between subjective morality and objective morality.

Many critics, including Hemingway, have objected to the final scenes with Tom Sawyer. And I did as well more than 60 years ago. But now I see those pages in a different light. I see them as a continuation of the contrast between what men choose to do and what men should do. In this case, Twain is in a way following Cervantes. He has Tom at the final rescue of Jim invoking, as his guidelines in the real world, not the rules of chivalry but the rules of the classic romances of literature. The novel’s conclusion thus continues the false reality theme which powers a major portion of the novel. And so Tom’s own false reality at the end belongs.

Now, I will grant that Twain exaggerates this false pretense of how to save Jim from his prison. If you accept the premise, however, the methods that Tom espouses are appropriate to free Jim. But I would argue that Twain does overdo it when Tom insists that Jim endure the rats, snakes, and spiders of those classic imprisonments.

However, Twain turns the tables on the reader (spoiler alert) when he explains why all of Tom’s exaggerated “rules” of escape were unnecessary. That is, in the real world. But not, still, of course, in Tom’s world.

The major impact of this book comes from its indictment of slavery. Even if its major purpose is an indictment of human hypocrisy. But the latter results in a misreading by those who would ban this book. Because the characters seek to justify their evil deeds, the banners do not see the evil being exposed. Because they do not see the irony Twain is using. (I have long been taught, by the way, and still believe, that all human beings act based on what they think is [for them] good.)

And the perception of evil is compounded by the word “nigger.” Except, that word belongs to this style that is vernacular, as well as to this era and to this region of the country. Actually, I think the word becomes an excuse for what those who would ban this book sense to be a refutation of their standard of morality. Thus, they can ignore that the novel is really a refutation of their own human hypocrisy.

And Twain’s theme begins, indeed, on the very first page of this novel, when Tom tells Huck he is going to form a gang of robbers, and invites Huck to join. Whereupon, his plans do not succeed because, in his secret cave, Tom reveals arbitrary rules for robbing, rules that precisely foreshadow what will later become his rules for rescuing Jim.

Huck also has discussions about Providence and the need to be good, not bad, in this life in order to enter heaven. Which introduces the theme of good and evil that will trouble Huck’s in his adventures along the river—for it will raise doubts about what is actually good and what is actually evil. And then the idea of witchcraft and superstition enters, complicating the issue and one’s own responsibility for one’s actions.

From the start, Twain sets up his treatment of hypocrisy and deceit. It begins with the trick Huck uses when he flees his cruel father. That is, Huck kills a pig and leaves a trail of blood to the river, thus leading people to think his dead body has been swept away. And it is Huck’s belief that Tom would admire this subterfuge.

As Huck’s adventures begin, Twain dramatizes Huck’s desire to flee civilization and its artificial constraints, a desire he repeats in the book’s final line. These adventures begin when Huck encounters the nigger Jim, also in flight because he fears he is going to be sold down-river. Slowly, Twain lets Huck and the reader see the human side of Jim, which makes the “civil” treatment of slaves all the more inhuman.

The amusing chapter in which Huck pretends to be a girl offers another variation on the theme of pretense and reality. Which continues when Huck tells an elaborate lie to get a boatman to go upriver and rescue bad men caught in a shipwreck. And follows in an amusing discussion in which Jim misses the point of the story of Solomon in the Bible, with Huck defending the customary rationale.

Next, Huck and Jim get dramatically separated in a fog, whereupon, when they reunite, Huck tells Jim it was all a dream. Which Jim accepts until reality sets in—that theme again. And when Jim reveals how distraught he was in thinking Huck was lost, then Huck  begins to accept the humanity of Jim. Indeed, Huck later tells another lie, this time to save Jim, saying that the man on his raft (Jim) has smallpox in order to drive away men looking for runaway slaves.

Huck and Jim are separated again when a steamboat rams their raft and they dive overboard. Huck is taken in by the middle-class Grangefords, who are dueling with the Shepherdsons—still another example of adhering (as Tom does) to the false protocols of the past.

Finally, Huck and Jim rescue two men who turn out to be confidence men, the duke and the Dauphin (the king). These two decide to create their own misshapen theatrical drama based on the classics, a drama to entice an audience who thinks it is getting the real classics.

In their final deceit, the confidence men pretend to be the brothers of Peter Wilks, a rich man who has just died. But Huck’s conscience is troubled by his collaborating with these men to cheat the Wilks girls of their inheritance. Then the true Wilks heirs show up, and all plans are foiled, both Huck’s and the duke’s and the king’s. Whereupon, the final adventure, of rescuing Jim, begins. And it begins with the lie of Huck pretending to be Tom Sawyer, since Tom’s Aunt Sally expects Tom’s arrival.

I go through these details of lies, mistaken identity, and deceit to suggest how perfectly planned this novel is. That even the artifice of the final rescue of Jim is not actually out of tune with the more serious travels down the river. And, in retrospect, even those adventures were not themselves that serious; they were filled with humor and lies and artifice as well.

Finally, what is remarkable to me is the various duels Huck has with his own conscience. They basically concern his helping the slave Jim escape, but they also involve supporting the confidence men and stealing money to get the girls their true inheritance. Twain has Huck thinking that he has been trained/educated in a certain way—that slavery is valid, that the adult world’s rules should be followed, etc—but that in specific situations he senses that such principles are wrong, that they lead to injustice. So he decides he must be “bad,” even if it means he will not go to heaven, in order to do right by people on earth. And it is this ironic exposure of hypocrisy that troubles many readers.

This reading prompts me to go back one day to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and perhaps to the two subsequent books about Huck. I do not expect them to be great masterpieces, such as this work is, but it might be interesting to read how the story of Huck evolved in Twain’s mind. (March 2014)