Spies like us

SWEET TOOTH
By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, $32.95

FROM the start of old age, the baby boomers look back to their youth: Christopher Hitchens had his memoir and is the dedicatee of Sweet Tooth; Martin Amis had The Pregnant Widow , and now it's Ian McEwan's turn. Nothing so banal as thinly disguised autobiography - he's too old for that - but then the artist in this one isn't god-like and invisible, either. Far from it.

It's the early '70s: strikes, IRA bombings, kids lost to drugs. Serena Frome goes from Cambridge and a mediocre maths degree to an affair with a history don and then to a job he sets up for her at MI5.

At first she files, and is even sent to clean up a safe house left too long to the company of men, but when her bosses decide to start a new covert fund for writers who seem to be resisting the prevailing cultural leftism, she is sent to offer money to a young up-and-comer called T.H. Haley, whose works are precised or, rather, retold, at some length. They have a remarkable similarity to the stories McEwan was publishing in the early 1970s: an ape has an affair with a novelist; a wealthy man has an affair with a showroom dummy, and there's a post-apocalyptic fantasy duly called Ballardesque.

Serena rather fulsomely loves the work, and then finds she ecstatically loves the man. He loves her back, and she realises she has painted herself into a corner.

If we forget that Serena studied mathematics to please her mother, one strand of the book shapes up as an examination of pre-feminist gender relations (and perhaps that detail doesn't disconfirm that idea: nowadays women might be less likely to go in for uncongenial studies just to prove a point). The '60s and its promise of liberation might be only a couple of years back, but snobbery and sexism is still everywhere, barely undone by new progressive attitudes. Throughout, Serena is educated and manoeuvred by men. Her lover, Canning, instructs her in the ways of English history, her superiors put pressure on her friendship with fellow clerk Shirley, and later Haley, like Canning, takes her in hand, teaching her to read poetry and guying her on her old-fashioned tastes in literature.

Serena tells us she is a naive reader, or was when the book took place (and the time scheme of the narrative is worth paying attention to). She likes writing that tells her straightforwardly about the world she lives in: she likes Margaret Drabble and Elizabeth Bowen. Haley, on other hand, likes his experimental: William Gaddis, B.S. Johnson, the new South American writers who are all the rage.

Along with his recycling of the back catalogue, McEwan deploys this opposition to make us wonder into what category Sweet Tooth falls: a solid, three-dimensional evocation of 1970s Britain, full of the kind of true-to-life detail Serena likes in her fiction - the haircuts, clothes, dingy offices and bedsits, literary hard man Ian Hamilton dispensing drinks at the Pillars of Hercules? Or a novel that puts its own procedures on display, foregrounding its own fictionality? Is it a book like Atonement, or a book like Atonement?

Not uncondescendingly, Haley tells Serena it is middlebrow to worry about giving away the plot, but they're not called spoilers for nothing, and one ought not reveal too much just to prove how highbrow one is.

It's striking how powerful is the fear of trial by (English) media: as if from some recurring nightmare, McEwan seems compelled to depict exposure, and, as in Amsterdam and Solar, his characters here eventually wake up to find their names splashed unflatteringly all over the papers (come to think of it, the bedroom scene in On Chesil Beach is a version of the same thing.)

We discover that, like journalists, novelists are also spies, or snoops, and that they also keep dossiers on people; as in a good old-fashioned spy thriller we discover the forces surrounding Serena reach deeper and wider than she could have imagined: the paranoia is as period as the chain-smoking, and it's existential as well as political.

Like a lot of Ian McEwan, the pleasure one gets from the skill can be offset by the slightly oppressive sense that nothing has been left unplanned, though Sweet Tooth definitely is more easeful than Solar, in which the jokes and comic sequences seem to have been designed by a team of engineers.

A novel set in the world usually explored by thrillers would have to have a very good reason not to offer entertainment, and Sweet Tooth does more than enough of that. How much of a step forward it is for McEwan is another question.

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