Ian McEwan's new novel Sweet Tooth is a brilliant exercise in deception
Throughout 2002, with the country split over Tony Blair’s desire to wage a pre-emptive war in Iraq without a UN mandate, a vigorous national debate flourished in the British press. At the time it seemed reasoned argument could yet influence decisions, affect outcomes, perhaps even change the fate of nations. Intellectuals rushed to press, keen to put forward their views. When Christopher Hitchens wrote articles supporting the neoconservative position, many saw it as a betrayal. The depth of feeling aroused by Hitchens’s perceived apostasy was testament to his extraordinary powers of rhetoric: it was felt that he above all on the intellectual Left had the power to persuade and convince, that his was an important voice to have on your side. With so much at stake, Hitchens’s words, they thought, could really tip the balance and send us to war. The Left never forgave him.
Ian McEwan has dedicated his new work Sweet Tooth to the late Christopher Hitchens, his friend since their time together at the New Statesman in the early 1970s. It’s a gesture that hints at the enduring role of culture as potential propaganda, given the novel’s concern with the power of culture to form public opinion and influence foreign policy. McEwan’s novel reminds us that when it comes to war, winning the war of ideas can have as much impact as winning physical frontiers, as governments grow savvy to how effectively “war could be waged at one remove by writers, artists, intellectuals”.
Taking as its inspiration the Encounter affair of 1967, in which the Anglo-American literary magazine was revealed to be a recipient of CIA funding, Sweet Tooth follows the story of Serena Frome as she is recruited into MI5 in the early 1970s and assigned to operation “Sweet Tooth”. Her brief is to pose as an employee of Freedom International, a fictional arts foundation with a remit to encourage excellence in the arts by funding young people at the beginning of their careers. She must persuade talented young author Tom Haley to accept the funding, and oversee his development as a writer of novels and short stories.
Haley’s journalistic writing shows him to be sceptical of leftist political ideologies that seduced many young intellectuals in the Sixties and Seventies, and for that reason MI5 is interested. Haley writes, for example, about Burgess and Maclean and the number of deaths they were responsible for. While there’s no question of MI5 telling Haley what to write, the hope is that with funding at this critical moment in his career he might, over time, develop into an important cultural voice speaking up for Western values in a Cold War waged through the pages of books and journals.
The reader is left wondering whether Sweet Tooth could have a basis in fact. How much of this sort of thing has gone on? Did it go on over Iraq? Might it still go on? Most academics and writers-rightly or wrongly-won’t need much persuading that funding bodies are nefarious, secretive institutions engaged in furthering their own or the government’s political agenda. A successful application to an arts council these days will have you wondering which part of your proposal fulfilled unknown but indubitably trendy criteria, such as the promotion of diversity. Whether or not times have changed for a young academic like Haley at the University of Sussex in 1972, his cynical modern equivalent will only wonder that Haley doesn’t turn round to Serena Frome and say, “If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.”
Sweet Tooth‘s mingling of fact and fiction is a deliberate ploy. Real figures such as Angus Wilson and Martin Amis make cameo appearances and coexist alongside McEwan’s fictional creations. Stella Rimington is in there too, disguised as Millie Trimingham. The reader is meant to scrutinise these characters, discern their dim outlines and fill in the gaps accordingly. “My task was to reconstruct myself through the prism of your consciousness,” says Haley at one point, and it is effectively McEwan’s task too. Haley is in part an autobiographical sketch: he and McEwan share a degree from Sussex, a backlist of short stories, contacts in literary London. It’s a nod to the tendency of readers to search for clues about an author’s experience within the work, but also a narrative device, an aside about how literature is consumed.
Serena is, as she puts it, “the basest of readers. All I wanted was my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form.” She devours novels quickly, reading for enjoyment without pausing to consider hidden meanings. A “born empiricist”, she read maths instead of English at Cambridge, and so lacks the mental tools to read critically or to get “the measure of the artifice” involved in creating literature. Consequently, she is open to being double-crossed by the author who can get one over an ill-equipped reader, rather as Soviet censors did not detect implied criticism of Stalin in the poetry of Osip Mandelstam: it flew under their radar. She makes for a pretty hopeless spy.
The obvious writer-as-double-agent and fiction-as-espionage parallels are drawn to the full in Sweet Tooth. The relationship between Serena and Haley mirrors that between reader and writer: “I said I didn’t like tricks, I liked life as I knew it recreated on the page. He said it wasn’t possible without tricks.” For “he” we are meant to understand Haley but also McEwan in his guise. He too likes tricks, and plays an almighty one on his reader at the end of the novel, giving the plot a smart twist to leave the reader feeling double-crossed.
Does it follow that, in giving the reader his own world, and himself in it, McEwan is the basest of writers? He certainly takes the advantages offered by his authorial position, the opportunities it affords for clever brinkmanship, and the obvious chances to drop in clues and signposts for even the basest reader to read below the surface level of plot. But if McEwan likes tricks, they are played as in chess-and it’s no coincidence that Serena is a chess player-in plain sight: if he gets you, it’s only because you missed something. The real trick, it seems, is to know when you’re a pawn in someone else’s game, and if Sweet Tooth is to be believed, that goes for writers as well as for readers.