Of plots and counterplots
What could be a better match Ian McEwan and a spy story? The English writer is a thinking person's best-seller, whose intelligent, tightly plotted novels, narrated in careful prose, address the pressing social and political issues of our days. And whether in fictions set in the last century (Atonement, On Chesil Beach) or contemporary morality tales (Saturday, Solar), McEwan's characters are never far away from the possibility of violence and the threat of deceit.
McEwan's new novel, Sweet Tooth, takes place against a vivid 1970s England unraveling with strikes and fuel shortages, in the murky corridors of the British intelligence agency MI5. Anyone who has seen the recent film version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" will have the right images to draw on dim lighting, mustard-colored jackets, rooms full of smoke as McEwan's heroine, Serena Frome, takes a lowly post in MI5's shabby offices shortly after graduating from Cambridge.
Serena's ambitions are unformed, and her ideology is largely borrowed (from a Cambridge history professor with whom she had an affair, and the Times' editorials), yet not too far into her dreary secretarial tenure, via a flirtation with a colleague named Max, she is invited to join a new, higher-level program.
Code-named Sweet Tooth, the project will surreptitiously fund English writers who appear to have the right sort of sympathies. The goal is to "lure left-of-center European intellectuals away from the Marxist perspective and make it intellectually respectable to speak up for the Free World."
In explaining the project's background to Serena (and incidentally the reader), Serena's boss refers to actual episodes, such as the British Foreign Office's collaborations with George Orwell and the CIA-funded literary magazine Encounter, whose editor, Stephen Spender, resigned when the funding source was revealed. Later in the novel we learn about Mincemeat, an elaborate World War II operation given shape by a young British naval officer named Ian Fleming.
As in many good spy stories, romance soon enters into the action, as Serena is assigned a brilliant, handsome young writer named Tom Haley to recruit, without his knowing, into Sweet Tooth. Reading his dark, complex stories, whose plots McEwan lays out in detail, Serena is seduced by Haley's fiction.
But the line between the writer and his work blurs, as does Serena's judgment of her professional risk, for from her first encounter with Haley in Brighton, where he has been teaching at Sussex University, her attraction to Tom is intense and mutual.
The romantic relationship recounted brings us back to earlier McEwan tales of young couples' sexual discoveries of one another, and the simple, intense pleasures of courtship and consummation. Brighton of the 1970s is re-created in affectionate detail, as are the hopes and doubts of a young writer finding his way. Serena and Tom's evolving intimacy takes place against the background of Tom's burgeoning career.
For the experienced McEwan reader, in addition to the suspense created by the plot how long can Serena keep her real work a secret? What is the story behind the death of her Cambridge lover? there is the titillated registering of parallels between Haley's biography and McEwan's own.
This is signaled early on, when Haley's stories, like those of In Between the Sheets (1978), include a tale of a female writer's relationship with an ape, and a father-daughter drama in postapocalyptic London. With a nice irony, McEwan gives us Serena's dismissal of the ape story: "Beyond the strained and ludicrous matter of cross-species sex, I instinctively distrusted this kind of fictional trick. I wanted to feel the ground beneath my feet."
In this sort of comment, and as Haley goes on to befriend renowned literary critic Ian Hamilton, sharing drinks with him in Soho's famous pub the Pillars of Hercules, it is hard not to see McEwan as gently lampooning his earlier self and work. From a scene with Tom reading alongside a hilarious Martin Amis (Tom subsequently subdues the raucous crowd with his own grim, humorless tale) to in-jokes about the Booker Prize (one of whose recent judges, Stella Rimington, was the retired director general of MI5), Sweet Tooth is clearly as much, if not more, an account of the London literary world as it is one of British espionage.
Nor will anyone familiar with Atonement, for example, be shocked by this novel's various narrative twists, which a reviewer would reveal at her peril. Suffice it to say that at the heart of Sweet Tooth, as of so much of McEwan's work, is an interest in the nature of identity, and of truth.
If the novel's end seems a little too tidy, and Serena's voice not always convincing she is the daughter of a bishop, but her sensibility rarely reflects the deep imprint of a religious upbringing Sweet Tooth is nonetheless a more-than-nourishing tale set in the last decade of the Cold War, when male bosses got away with appalling sexism, you could still smoke at work, and George Smiley was given his last job.