Archive for the ‘McEwan, Ian (2)’ Category

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

August 29, 2012

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

The author page at the front of Sweet Tooth lists 14 previous titles from Ian McEwan and I have read them all. Obviously, I am a fan — indeed, a few years ago (say at about Atonement time, four books back) he was definitely on my short list if asked for favorite authors. My enthusiasm started to slip with Saturday, came back a bit with On Chesil Beach and fell further with Solar — but remained active enough that I was looking forward to this latest arrival. Its failure to make the Booker longlist, announced a month ago, tempered expectations and suggested it was not one of McEwan’s best — now that I have read it, I’d have to say I have no quarrel whatsoever with the jury’s assessment.

The pre-publication description of Sweet Tooth had me wondering in advance if McEwan and Simon Mawer hadn’t fallen under the influence of the same muse when it came to their latest offerings. Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky features a brainy but socially awkward young woman who is recruited to join the Special Operations Executive and is parachuted into wartime France. Sweet Tooth may be set a generation later in the 1970s but its central character, Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume”), is recruited straight out of Cambridge to join the Intelligence Service — there may be no active war, but there is a Cold one, not to mention Irish disturbances that provide fodder for “intelligence” work.

Like Mawer’s Marian Sutro, whose father is a British diplomat at the League of Nations, Serena is well-bred — her father is an Anglican bishop in a charming small city in east England. Part of Marian’s attraction for the shadowy authorities was a youthful crush, not quite affair, with Clement, who is now a significant nuclear physicist in Paris. Serena for her part had a summer affair with her tutor, Tony Canning. He had done time with the MI5 and, in the grand spy novel tradition, now supplements his academic work by keeping an eye out for potential recruits — Serena will be his last.

Let’s pause for a moment here. One of the problems with reviewing “spy” novels (even those set in the Cold War) is that it is impossible to avoid spoilers. I’ll do my best but if you are spoiler-averse and interested in Sweet Tooth you might want to stop reading now.

Like the rest of her intake group, Serena’s initial assignment is in the secretarial pool — most of her work consists of organizing and retrieving files for those who are actively directing agents or observing potential threats. For the new staff, “intelligence” work is pretty much confined to office gossip about why they are watching whoever they are watching but, even more, what the current rumors are about who will next get promoted into “real” work.

Serena’s chance comes with the Sweet Tooth project. For some years, the Americans have been running a CIA program where they financed and directed the publication of anti-Communist writing that was meant to “balance” the obvious left-wing bias of conventional media. They have recently been caught out, with much ensuing embarrassment (okay, this part is real history). MI5’s response is not to avoid this tricky territory but rather to jump in with a program that will show the Americans just how to do it properly. Sweet Tooth will involve the subtle subsidy (through established arms-length foundations) of 12 young writers who have shown appropriate anti-Communist tendencies — rather than being “directed”, CIA-style, they will simply be nurtured.

There has been some dispute inside MI5, but at the insistence of the project leader one of the 12 will be a fiction writer. Serena’s Cambridge degree may be in mathematics, but she has always been a voracious reader of fiction. Her move into “real” work will be the recruitment and minding of the fiction writer.

If all this sounds as though you have read a version of it before, you probably have. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if you were handed the sections from the two novels chronicling Marina and Serena’s recruitment interviews, you would have a hard time saying which was Mawer and which was McEwan. Still, at this point I had hopes that McEwan’s considerable talent would elevate Sweet Tooth above the genre norm.

Alas, the novel headed in the other direction. The chosen author is one Thomas Haley, currently completing his doctorate in English literature at the University of Sussex and teaching to make ends meet. He’s published enough journalism (an essay on the East German uprising of ’53, a “goodish piece” about the Berlin Wall) to establish his anti-communist credentials but it is his five published stories (in journals ranging from the CIA-sponsored Encounter to the highly-respected Paris Review and Kenyon Review) that have convinced the MI5 types that he is their man of fiction.

One of the weakest aspects of Sweet Tooth is the way that McEwan chooses to acquaint us with those five stories. Here’s a brief excerpt that starts the process as Serena begins to read them before heading off to meet Haley for his “recruitment” interview:

I count those first hours with his fiction as among the happiest in my time at Five. All my needs beyond the sexual met and merged: I was reading, I was doing it for a higher purpose that gave me professional pride, and I was soon to meet the author. Did I have doubts or moral qualms about the project? Not at that stage. I was pleased to have been chosen. I thought I could do the job well. I thought I might earn praise from the higher floors in the building — I was a girl who likes to be praised.

McEwan eventually takes the reader through all five stories but we see them only through the eyes of Serena the reader, with frequent italicized quotes. Here is an example from the first she reads which features Edmund Alfredus, a social history academic and Labor MP:

He’s well to the left of his party and something of a trouble-maker, an intellectual dandy, a serial adulterer and a brilliant public speaker with good connections to powerful members of the Tube train drivers’ union. He happens to have an identical twin brother, Giles, a milder figure, an Anglican vicar with a pleasant living in rural West Sussex within cycling distance of Petworth House, where Turner once painted. His small, elderly congregation gathers in a pre-Norman church whose pargeted uneven walls bore the palimpsests of Saxon murals depicting a suffering Christ overlaid by a gyre of ascending angels, whose awkward grace and simplicity spoke to Giles of mysteries beyond the reach of an industrial, scientific age.

While the tactic of description and semi-quoting is mildly amusing at first, it quickly becomes annoying — partly because McEwan extends the process through several pages every time he introduces one of the stories. If the stories are any good, let us read them I was mentally shouting. Otherwise, tidy it up quickly and get on with the book we are actually reading. Beyond raising questions about how much of Haley himself was present in each story (surely readers go through that with every novel they read and don’t much care what the answer really is?), they don’t add anyting to Sweet Tooth.

I don’t think I spoil things too much by saying that Thomas and Serena fall in love (you’ve already figured that out, haven’t you?) and that that is what will provoke the drama that eventually resolves the novel. My qualification earlier on in this review that the presentation of the stories was “one of the weakest aspects” of this novel was deliberate — for this reader, there will be an even more serious one that we can discuss in comments if you choose to read the book.

McEwan remains a superb wordswmith so most of my negative reaction was of the “surely he could do better than this” sort rather than something more serious. (In fact, as is usually true for McEwan, there are some wonderful London moments — a dinner at Sheekey’s, one of my favorite London restaurants, was particularly well-presented.) He is definitely not a difficult author to read, even when not in first rate form, and with 15 novels and story collections already under my belt, I am sure I will pick up number 16 as soon as it appears. Let’s just say that expectations have been diminishing with the last few and will be lowered yet again as a result of this disappointing effort.

Solar, by Ian McEwan

March 11, 2010

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada -- click for info

So here is a 62-year-old male reader, for the second time in two weeks, trying to review a novel by an author of major, major reputation whom the reviewer has respected for decades who is also in his early 60s (Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow is the other if you missed that post.) The central character in both novels is also a well-off male in his early 60s (how much autobiography?); both have been obsessed with sex throughout their lives (is it really autobiography?). While they have both been good at getting it, dealing with the consequences has been a major, even overwhelming, personal issue, if not outright failure. I’ll return to the comparison later — first let’s look at what Solar is about.

Michael Beard is a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for work he did while in his early 20s, developing the Beard-Einstein Conflation, an extension of Einstein’s work. When we first meet him at the age of 53 in 2000, he has already spent decades living off the avails of that award: honorary (but paying) university positions, memberships on Royal Commissions, consulting editor to numerous publications, paid conference appearances where he delivers the same speech, etc., etc. — it is a long list. While he has niggling concerns about effectively deserting his field, his major current worry is far different — his fifth marriage is disintegrating and, for the first time, it is his wife (Patrice) who is driving the process.

He had it coming. His four previous wives, Maisie, Ruth, Eleano, Karen, who all still took a distant interest in his life, would have been exultant, and he hoped they would not be told. None of his marriages had lasted more than six years and it was an achievement of sorts to have remained childless. His wives had discovered early on what a poor or frightening prospect of a father he presented and they protected themselves and got out. He liked to think that if had caused unhappiness, it was never for long, and it counted for something that he was still on speaking terms with his exes.

Needless to say all these wives, except for the first, were younger and the age gap has grown with each succeeding marriage (this latest one is about two decades). Patrice’s lover is a builder who renovated their Belsize Park flat — younger, taller, less fat and with more hair than Michael.

On the professional front, Beard has a new and attractive scam. He is the head (they call him “Chief”) of the National Centre for Renewable Energy in Reading, a Blair government initiative to show concern about climate change and also to one-up the Americans. It is not Beard’s field of expertise and he is a climate change sceptic at best, but the time investment is only one day a week, it is an easy train ride from London and the pay is good since the government needs someone like a Nobel Prize winner to show its commitment. Beard does make a useless, indeed project-killing, suggestion for the invention and development of WUDU (a Wind turbine for Urban Domestic Use, to be mounted like television aerials of the past on rooftops) that completely preoccupies the Centre.

The post-docs who are the scientists of the project (and much more in touch with contemporary science than Beard) are an idealistic, committed bunch (many with ponytails, all in denims). Much of the Centre’s time is taking up by responding to nutbar suggestions from the public, since the Minister has said every idea sent to the Centre would get a response — one post-doc suggests they be sorted into three piles according to their denial of the First or Second Laws of Thermodynamics, or both. That kind of satire is often where McEwan is at his best, but they really are throwaway lines.

This paragraph is a spoiler, in a way, but it is essential to the set up of the book and, honest, takes you no more than a quarter of the way into it. One of the ponytails, Tom Aldous, adopts the Chief as his mentor. Aldous is convinced that the breakthrough answer is a version of photosynthesis, using solar energy to turn water into hydrogen and oxygen, just as plants have been doing for millenia to make the planet habitable. In order to set up the novel, McEwan:

– has Aldous become Patrice’s lover.
— die in circumstances that could cast Beard as a murderer
— except perhaps Beard could frame her previous lover
— oh, and Aldous leaves Beard a 300-plus page file on his photosynthesis ideas

If you have ever read any Ian McEwan novel, you will understand why any further plot references in this review are going to be sketchy — it is one thing to outline the set-up, it is truly spoiling to go much further. McEwan’s best novels (Atonement and Enduring Love are at the top of my list) do have a consistent trait. More than 90 per cent of what he describes is very realistic and it is in these parts where the author offers very perceptive observations on modern foibles, usually totally unrelated to the plot. Here is one, somewhat extended, example from an incident at a press conference where Beard is introducing yet another government committee he heads, this one on how to encourage more young people to take up the sciences. It leads to Beard being scandalized in the popular press as the “neo-Nazi professor”:

Then a woman from a mid-market tabloid asked a question, also routine, something of an old chestnut, and Beard replied, as he thought, blandly. It was true, women were under-represented in physics and always had been. The problem had often been discussed, and (he was mindful of Professor Temple as he said it) certainly his committee would be looking at it again to see if there were new ways of encouraging more girls into the subject. He believed there were no longer any institutional barriers or prejudices. There were other branches of science where women were well represented, and some where they predominated. And then, because he was boring himself, he added that it might have to be accepted one day that a ceiling had been reached. Although there were many gifted women physicists, it was at least conceivable that they would always remain in a minority, albeit a substantial one, in this particular field. There might always be more men than women who wanted to work in physics. There was a concensus in cognitive psychology, based on a wide range of experimental work, that in statistical terms the brains of men and women were significantly different. This was emphatically not a question of gender superiority, nor was it a matter of social conditioning, though of course it played a reinforcing role. These were widely observed innate differences in cognitive ability.

I have quoted only half the paragraph but I am sure you get the gist. In my days in the newspaper business, there was a phrase that described such incidents (and you would be amazed how often they occur): “Meant it when he said it, not when he read it”. McEwan milks it for several, very funny pages.

Then there is the other 10 per cent of McEwan, where reality is suspended and an unreal, unbelievable world intoduced. In his good books, it is as though the author says “grant me this licence, believe it to be true and I will deliver a result”. In the bad ones, it produces the reader response of “oh, come on, Ian”. Alas, there is far more of the latter than the former in this book. Although there is a hilarious set-piece where Beard heads off to a climate change symposium located on a ship frozen in the winter ice off Spitsbergen. He is the only scientist of the more than 20 participants literally stuck in the middle of frozen nowhere — the rest are all artists of one sort or another, bringing their creative talents to bear on highlighting the issue of climate change. The fact that it works (McEwan in his acknowledgements says he got the idea for this book from a trip with Cape Farewell to Spitsbergen in 2005) is proof that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Unfortunately, the success of this particular section serves all too much as a reminder of the failure of others in this novel.

While Beard gives up marriage after his fifth dissolves, he does not give up women — the tensions created by that, mixed with the plot line I introduced in the mini-spoiler, drive the bulk of the book. He is an unattractive enough character that one would love to be cheering for the women but they are all drawn in a curiously flat fashion (I’d be interested in comments from women readers on what I at least perceive to be a major shortfall).

Okay, back to comparisons with Amis. The narrators of both books are men in their early 60s, realizing that sex (which has played such a large part of their lives) is entering a diminishing phase at best. Amis sets most of his narrative in the past when his character was 20 and discovering his lifelong obsession — he brings the story into the present in the Coda that I did not like at all. McEwan places his character pretty much in the present (the three sections of the book are set in 2000, 2005 and 2009) but he spends a lot of his time contemplating just what produced his current circumstances. For this reader, the two pretty much look at the same lump of coal, but from two quite different perspectives. For my money, while neither is successful, Amis comes closer to hitting a reader-friendly mark. McEwan’s introduction of the Nobel Prize winner and climate change angles sets the bar for success pretty high (if you are going to use those kind of high level plot gimmicks you have a duty to deliver at an equally high level) and they just don’t work at all. There is enough science to be annoying, not enough to learn much and it mainly ends up getting in the way of what could have been a rather good story.

But then I think that is a characteristic that is true of recent McEwan fiction — Saturday in particular comes to mind. If you liked that novel (I didn’t — the medicine was as distracting as the science is here, the story as thin), I think you would quite like this one. Indeed if you have read a lot of McEwan and liked him (I have read all of his books and for a while would have called him my favorite contemporary author), this book is definitely worth the investment, despite its shortcomings. He is a highly readable author and, if he isn’t annoying you, there are some quite good moments.

On the other hand, if you think he has been slipping badly in recent books (as many McEwan readers do), this one is probably going to confirm that opinion. And if you have only read one or two, my advice would be to go back to the earlier works. For me, at least, McEwan, like his central character Michael Beard, seems to be guilty of living off his past laurels rather than his current achievement.


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