Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth
by Ian McEwan
2012/K. – 323 pages
Rating 7

Okay,  I read McEwan to see what he’s up to.  I loved his early work which was fine story-telling in the suspense genre –  Black Dogs was the best, imo.   But over the years I’ve become a bit disenchanted as he’s decided he’s really a very “literary”  writer and ever since Amsterdam (boring!) has been trying to repeat the acclaim he got for that Booker winner,  sometimes more successfully than others.

This was not a terribly successful book although some parts were interesting.  I thought that the insights into the mind of a reader were pretty good along with authors’  source material for stories.   The old lit crit ideal – from the era of “new criticism” was to take the book at it’s own level and not involve author biography,  or relevant history,  or  anything other than lit on its own terms.   That is so much bunk imo –  what do they think an author is doing,  channelling a story?   That the narrator is simply the pen as being used by a force from another world?  The author as nobody?  More likely the female reader as silly:


And there was the earlier attempt at “realism”  in which a novelist/narrator detailed the lives of its characters to such an extent the reader became totally bored.  Okay – realism through whose eyes?

Then along came Post-Modern lit which was fun for awhile but there’s only so far you can go with that – it’s all fiction and the author is going to show the reader just how fictional it is by use of self-reflexive little asides,  various versions of the same reality, unreliable narrators,  irony,  intertextuality,  magical realism etc.  The structure and devices are the message – and we’ve lost a lot of very good stories but others thrive.

Some of the old PoMo devices seem to be standing the test of time and once in awhile a contemporary author (21st century) will use some creativity.   Sweet Tooth (I finally got to this) is one of  those times.   I liked the way McEwan focused on the head and imagination of the reader – putting her own thoughts into the head of the author – almost making the story an extension of  the author’s life.   It’s almost a parody of a parody.

Fwiw,  many years ago Peter Carey was sued by his wife  for using their divorce in a novel and presenting “her” in a very bad light.   The novel was Theft, A Love Story.

And at the end,  we don’t know what was in that package Tom Hardy left for Serena.

I used to enjoy the challenge of a good PoMo novel but anymore it annoys me when an author is more concerned with the literary artifices of his novel than with the story.

And I’m not responding with more attention to those devices than to the story –  silly – but was that not McEwan’s aim?  Okay fine – we’ll play – the book is a 7 because the plot line and characters got sidetracked for McEwan’s own personal reasons.  (NOT for the reasons of his narrator.)

So –  about the story –

Serena joins the Secret Service largely on the advice of her lover,  Tony,  an old SS  operative who favors a balance of power in the Cold War.  She’s put into a literary division and given an assignment to bring Tom Hardy into the fold of writers writing in favor of capitalism (or at least against Communism).   She succeeds,  his bad novel is a prize winner,  he finds out she’s been paid to do this,  he breaks up with her and writes their story down.   They may get back together – the story is left to the mind of the reader just as Serena’s interpretations of his novels were in her mind.   (And she’s correct – the author is the force behind the narrator.)

There could have been a lot more suspense and many fewer self-reflexive little winks.  More story and less playing around with dated pomo devices would have improved the novel considerably.

Here are some more notes I took until I got too hooked into the book – no big bad spoilers.


recruited into the spy game from Cambridge –

Chapter 1 – we meet Serena Frome, the first person protagonist telling the story of her mission with the Secret Service (Britain) in a past tense. She is a very pretty and moderately smart young lady who attends Cambridge for the mathematics courses.  Her father is an Anglican Bishop and her mother is a bit of  a closet feminist.  Serena’s background is essentially upper middle class and quite protected.

Serena reads a lot and enjoys literature – perhaps this will lend a romantic outlook to her behavior.  ??

Towards the end of her Cambridge courses she meets and has an affair with an older professor Tony – they go to his family’s island cottage in Aaland.

“watercolor by Winston Churchill, painted in Marrakech during a break from the Conference in 1943”   (pg 17)  Here

Kumlinge an island in Åland Islands off the west coast of Finland.  (pg 18)

Some of McEwan’s tension sets in:   “The quaint hiss and crackle of the blunted needle as it gently rose and fell with the warp of the album sounded like the ether, through which the dead were hopelessly calling to us.”  (pg 18)

“Burgess, MacLean and Philby”  (1950s) a part of  the Cambridge Five.

There’s actually quite a lot of “set-up”  for a spy novel.

Chapter 2
Libery’s is an old department store in London.

Liberty’s Dept. Store

Serena is 21 years old at this time, 1972,  just a tad younger than I was in the 1970s.  She viewed him as an old man then but now,  writing in contemporary times,  she is aware of the difference.

“And now, what I would give to be fifty-four again!”

So is this going to be about memory (again???)  No – McEwan is a suspense writer – but not above a few tricks.

John Dee (?)     J.M. Trevelayan,   Congress of Vienna (balance of power).  She learns how to read and comprehend and reads up on English history and the London Times as directed by Tony.  She is being groomed for some kind of questions.  She learns to be quite patriotic.

The United Kingdom had succumbed, one letter announced, to a frenzy of akrasia— which was, Tony reminded me, the Greek word for acting against one’s better judgment. (Had I not read Plato’s Protagoras?) A useful word. I stored it away.”  (pp. 23-24)

There’s a good review of Britain in the 1970s –  what with  inflation and strikes and skinheads – The Battle of Saltley is mentioned.   The Secret Service beckons.

Jesus Green, Cambridge

After college she lives by Jesus Green, a park in Cambridge, studying for the questions rather than at home.   At home her sister Lucy had turned into a late-blooming hippie and was in trouble by being pregnant and with the law for possession of hashish.

Serena leaves her shirt in Tony’s laundry basket at his direction and it leads to a break-up – he says he didn’t say that.  She knows better.  Suspicion,  intrigue, back-stabbing are set up.

Chapter 3
She gets the job but it’s not what she expected and she feels “lonely,

“I had nothing. No love, no job. Only the chill of loneliness. And the sorrow was compounded by the memory of the way he’d turned on me.” (pg. 37)

Stella Rimington

Millie Trillingham based on Stella Rimington  who started as a file girl and rose to director.  And makes a friend, Shirley Shilling,  somewhat lower classes.

They crawl the pubs and Serena sees a fight.

Chapter 4
She finds out Tony is dead and there’s a lot of self-reflective, re-invented memory, etc.  (pg 50)

She meets Maximillan Greatorex and goes to lectures on Communism.  They kiss but he’s stand-offish.  There’s some discussion about communism and resources.  He’s impressed she was a writer.

Oleg Lyalin – a Soviet defector who led investigators to other spies.

Maudling – a Brit Politico who was implicated in some serious scandals.

Max and Serena become closer and he mentions a project called “Sweet Tooth.”

Chapter 5
and now the lit theory gets boring –

“I was fortunate that most English writing of the time was in the form of undemanding social documentary. I wasn’t impressed by those writers (they were spread between South and North America) who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life. Or, to the contrary, to insist that life was a fiction anyway.” (p. 66)

And it’s so stupid because McEwan is showing us that Selena makes up her life as she goes along.  (sigh)  Is he trying to be ironic?  He’s being redundant.  I think McEwan doesn’t like Selena.

“I was rather like people of my parents’ generation who not only disliked the taste and smell of garlic, but distrusted all those who consumed it.” (p. 66)

bookmark x 2

And then her room seems to have been entered because the bookmark is not where it’s supposed to be – or is it?  O00oo… straight McEwan tension building.

Bloody Sunday 1972 – Derry

She goes to a lecture on the IRA where the speaker mentions the IRA and Bloody Sunday 1972.

Allusion to 9/11 (pg. 71)

“The game was terror.” (pg 72)

Allusion to our own failings in security information (pg 72).

Shirley blurts out, “Those berks want to stage a coup!”  Eeks – and everyone thinks it’s Selena because she’s sitting there and blushes.  She doesn’t deny it to Max and Shirley laughs it off.  Not good.

Chapter 6
Serena and Shirley are sent to clean up a safe-house where they discuss politics and Shirley seems to be almost communist.  She cleans hard and finds a scrap of paper with little written letters on it – they seem to spell out “tc” and “Kumlinge” –  Tony and his island.  Who?

She does some sleuthing and finds the scrap is from a newspaper with a story about Solzhenitsyn which she and Tony had discussed.

Chapter 7

She’s called into Tapp’s office (her boss) and is interviewed for something –  politics comes up,  she doesn’t do so well,  literature comes up and she does well.

“There were, after all,  only six ways to organize such a list.”

Melvin Lesky  American journalist, intellectual,  anti-communist, funded by CIA.

Congress of Cultural Freedom

Information Research Department

Background Books – Bertrand Russell

Thomas Haley is the candidate for a stipend to write a “right-leaning”  novel.

Angus Wilson  (arts council and novelist)

“Are we expecting to have at least a little influence over what any of these people write?” Nutting said,

“It would never work.  We have to trust in our choices and hope Haley and the rest turn out well and become, you know, important.  This is a slow-burn thing.  We aim to show the Americans how it’s done. But there’s no reason why we can’t give him a leg up along the way. You know, people who owe us a favor or three.  In Haley’s case, well, sooner or later one of our own is going to be chairing this new Booker Prize committee.  And we might look into that agent business.  But as for the stuff itself, they have to feel free.”

** note the Booker Prize mention

Chapter 9 –  Shirley is fired – don’t know why – and tells Serena she is likely being followed.  Serena reads the first story from Haley.

Chapter 10 –

Selena meets with Max for instructions regarding a visit to Tom Haley – a writer the Foundation might like to assist.  She reads his stories and proceeds to imagine Haley in a specific persona based on them.   The stories are in the book – they’re weird – about real people vs a fake and a mannequin but how people get satisfaction from the fake – they get human feelings from the imitation people.  – Is the name Haley a take-off of Alex Haley whose non-fiction work was found to be of very questionable authenticity? (Theme – what is real)

The book is getting into a more interesting aspect of what is real now –  looking at how authors are treated and assumed to be similar to their creations –

Chapter 11

“… in the past weeks I had become intimate with my own private version of Haley, I had read his thoughts on sex and deceit, pride and failure. We were on terms already and I knew they were about to be reformed or destroyed.” (pp 137-138)

Haley is a conservative journalist:

The article on the East German uprising of 1953 began, “Let no one think the Workers’ State loves its workers. It hates them,” and was scornful of the Brecht poem about the government dissolving the people and electing another. Brecht’s first impulse, in Haley’s account, was to “toady” to the German State by giving public support to the brutal Soviet suppression of the strikes.” (p. 138)

They meet,  she lies about background (says English not math), tells him she loves his stories (“utterly brilliant”)  and hits her mark.   But as the interview continues she only comes away with a maybe –  and some sexual overtones.

Chapter 12

Serena reads the story of  Sebastian Morel – a French professor,  poor, unhappy with job,  gets mugged but more or less a liberal politically.  His wife doesn’t believe his story because he had a drink later.  Later the house is robbed but it’s the wife who did it.  Later he sees her as a new woman and is attracted to her.  They have lost trust in each other.  He plans to leave but has a last dinner and probably sex.

“In my opinion Tom Haley spent too long over this farewell chicken dinner, and it seemed especially drawn out on a second reading. (p 159)

Chapter 13

She meets Max and he tells her that Tony was a “contact” for the Russians.  She remembers he believed in a “balance of powers”  and is very angry.  She has no one – and she blames Max – then grieves.

Chapter 14
Letter from Tom Haley – he accepts the Sweet Tooth deal and they meet and have sex and  start a relationship.

*** I see it coming – now Serena is going to see herself in his writing. ****

She mourns Tony and is angry at his deceit.  But she is lying to  Tom.


1.   memory

she’s relating this 40 years later

“I had nothing. No love, no job. Only the chill of loneliness. And the sorrow was compounded by the memory of the way he’d turned on me.”  (pg. 37)

2.  culture wars and individuality:

a.  Lucy and hippies

b.  Ranks of “psychedelic” shirts and Sergeant Pepper-ish tasseled military suits hung on long racks on the pavement. Available for like-minded hordes desperate to express their individuality.-  (p. 38)

3.  What do you believe?  What do you make up?  Even in your world today?  From Shirley to Haley – what is real?  Who do you trust?


2 Responses to Sweet Tooth

  1. Piko says:

    Please, check the map! Kumlinge is an island off the west coast of Finland – Finland doesn´t have an east coast; Sweden has. They never went together to Kumlinge. Åland is never spelled Aaland, unlike in Danish eg. Århus/Aarhus.


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