September 2, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I was honoured to be asked to review Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth for the Globe and Mail.
Each time McEwan brings out a new novel I am swept up in its world, unable to pause in the all-consuming act of devouring the words. He always comes charging out of the gate with his poignant inner lives, sharp class observations and excellently curated details of periods and people, giving it his best shot and impressing everyone for miles around. The opening pages of A Child In Time stand out as some of the best writing in recent literature for the sheer creeping chill of horror as Stephen Lewis realises his daughter is missing. But sometimes he seems to lose puff after the midway point. Once again, A Child in Time is the most obvious example—after its stunning opening, it turns into one of the biggest let-downs of recent literature for its flimsy magical-realist solution to the child’s disappearance. Flicking through Sweet Tooth after reviewing it, I noticed a marked drop-off in the quality of the writing, something not obvious in the initial flush of love. First time around, I don’t want the novel—my conversation with the narrator and, on another level, my interior monologue marvelling at McEwan’s skills—to end. But when it does, the spell is broken.
In fact, I’ve never made it more than a few pages into a reread of any of his novels. This also has something to do with McEwan’s writing seeming suddenly too knowing when the story itself is familiar. In Saturday the tone was probably too knowing the first time around; I almost felt as though I had to read it at arm’s length and with one eye closed, trying to dilute it. At one point in Sweet Tooth Serena describes Tom Haley as “too worldly, too knowing,” and although she mostly means in it the sense of being amazed that such a young writer can know or invent such excruciatingly precise details about people whose experiences he has not had, it’s also true of McEwan’s tone. It’s evident in the early part of Atonement too, that arch, almost-mocking quality that has you waiting, fearfully, for the moment of cruelty. Will someone with so much access to power abuse it?
I’ve seen a couple of claims that McEwan is a misogynist. I don’t think that’s true. His female characters do sometimes suffer—politically, emotionally or physically—at the hands of men. In The Innocent, for example, Leonard comes close to raping his girlfriend (unless, of course, it was legitimate, or just bad manners), but McEwan is, I think, aiming to show Maria’s point of view—that Leonard’s ambiguous intentions (he tells himself that Maria will enjoy being forced; he has any number of self-justifications) do nothing to lessen her terror at his violence. If anything, I suspect that McEwan’s acute understanding of the human condition has rendered him more misanthropic rather than less. His chronicling of failed communications, of longstanding social awkwardness resulting from misunderstandings, the shocks and disappointments of ageing—these things are common to all of us, I imagine him lamenting, and yet we still haven’t found a way of improving things.
Some reviewers, I’ve discovered since submitting my own piece, have been disappointed by Sweet Tooth. That’s partly just par for the course, surely, for a prolific novelist—it’s hard to keep everybody happy if you don’t do exactly the same thing every time. It’s also , I suspect, because of the insistence that it’s a spy novel, which it really isn’t, and also perhaps because some serious literary readers consider the mild metafictional dabbling to be beneath them. McEwan has been painted into a corner both by his reputation and the humanity of his writing, so he will never really be able to pull off anything experimental or innovative, but so what? There are plenty of other good writers to fill the job of not being Ian McEwan. He’s an excellent writer on a sentence-by-sentence level, and even when his novels don’t work as a whole, it takes very little away from the pleasure of reading him.