Archive for the ‘Ian McEwan’ Tag

Review: Sweet Tooth (2012) by Ian McEwan   Leave a comment

978-0-385-53682-0.JPGIn 1972, the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges published a short story called “The Other,” in which his elderly self, seated on a bench in Cambridge (the alma mater of Serena Frome, the protagonist of Sweet Tooth), bumps into his younger self. The two versions of Borges engage in a dialogue from which each comes away disconcerted by the differences between them, a device that is used by Borges to reflect on the disparate selves that we inhabit in the course of our lives. McEwan replicates a similar but fleeting moment in the course of his narrative. Toward the end of the book, as Serena is making her way through the crowd at Victoria station, she has a sudden vision: “I happened to glance to my right, just as the crowd parted, and I saw something quite absurd. I had a momentary glimpse of my own face, then the gap closed and the vision was gone.” Sweet Tooth follows the same logic as Borges, for McEwan, now sixty-four and the author of more than a dozen books, uses this novel to reflect back on his early career.

On the surface, the plot seems to belie this strategy. Set in the 1970s, its first-person narrator is a young woman who, after graduating from Cambridge with a degree in mathematics, is recruited by MI5. Although women are usually given MI5’s lowliest tasks, Serena is given a break: she is assigned to an operation called Sweet Tooth, which provides covert funds to authors who have an established anti-communist bias. As such, Serena recruits Tom Haley, a budding young writer with whom she soon begins an affair. In this layer of the story McEwan provides a searching and sometimes hilarious examination of artistic integrity in relation to the state, a subject that resounds in a number of directions: the rise of a neoconservative ideology that has seen cuts to arts funding over the last four decades, the grounding of Sweet Tooth in the real-life precedent of the CIA’s funding of the magazine Encounter, and even Haley’s choice of Spencer’s Faerie Queene as the topic of his doctoral thesis, since Spencer’s work is an allegorical epic poem that bears a similarly complicated relationship to the politics of the Elizabethan age. Indeed, one might argue that the Faerie Queene, rather than any spy thriller, is McEwan’s biggest clue as to how to read this particular dimension of the novel (although I suspect that Spencer will somehow not see a dramatic spike in sales as a result).

Concealed within this story is a recurrent set of in-jokes about McEwan and his early career, expressed through the character of Tom Haley. As part of her background research, for instance, Serena reads Haley’s published stories, which bear strong similarities to the style and themes of McEwan’s early fiction. Like Borges, McEwan treats his younger self with a mixture of appreciation and amusement, establishing a deliberately ambiguous relationship with those earlier works. On the surface, he asks us to admire them, but underneath he seems to be smirking at their now-apparent youthful enthusiasm. McEwan also gives Haley many of his own biographical features, from his lanky frame to his home university of Sussex. Again, this quasi-portrait is undercut with an Austen-like irony that is easy to miss the first time through, most notably McEwan’s repeated insistence on Haley’s being a “swordsman” whose mastery in bed is commented on at every turn by Serena. It is difficult – and therefore deeply humorous – to work out whether McEwan is engaging in sexual boasting by proxy, or whether these moments arise from self-deprecating humor, or whether, like in Austen, the line between the two has become so blurry that it is no longer possible to judge the difference. Either way, careful readers of the novel, especially those who are reading it for a second time, should have wonderful time picking out these shades of ambiguity.

Sweet Tooth has wrongly been billed as a spy novel in the vein of, say, John le Carré, or even a thriller in the mold of McEwan’s earlier novel The Innocent, but that is not what this book is about at all. Instead, it asks searching questions about the value of literature to both the educational and political vitality of a society. Serena is a voracious but poor reader: she reads purely for the surface entertainment of a book, for instance, while missing the subtle underlying meanings of the text. As such, she avoids poetry and experimental prose, refusing to grapple with difficult works in what McEwan intimates is a symptom of a larger failure to engage in true critical thinking. Books are in danger, he warns us, of becoming as useless as the defunct telephones in Haley’s dystopian novella: “Without a telephone system, telephones are worthless junk.” Without a critical reading audience, McEwan implies, works of literature, including Sweet Tooth, are “worthless junk,” toys that are reduced to lowly entertainment when they could be used for so much more.

To conclude, if you have never read a book by Ian McEwan, then do not start with this one. The reason is simple: Sweet Tooth is in many ways a literary retrospective, an oblique reflection by the author back on the origins of his career. As such, if you haven’t read any early works by McEwan – especially In Between The Sheets – and don’t know anything about his life, you will miss a great deal of the logic and rich humor embedded in this novel.

Rating: 4.5/5

© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted February 9, 2013 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Review: Amsterdam (1998) by Ian McEwan   Leave a comment

Often long-established authors, having been overlooked several times, end up being decorated for their lesser works, and in the case of Amsterdam, for which Ian McEwan won the Man Booker Prize, this pattern holds true. Not that Amsterdam is a bad book, but when I compare it to McEwan’s best – Atonement, of course, along with Black Dogs and Enduring Love – it doesn’t quite reach those same heights.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to admire the way McEwan writes. While managing to be as urgently postmodern in his style and themes as any other contemporary writer, McEwan pays great attention to the intricacies of plot and character. There is no navel-gazing in Ian McEwan’s novels, which always have at their center some motivating event or other that, like a stone being dropped into a still pool of water, sends a series of waves rippling through the rest of the plot – the discovery of the corpse in The Innocent, the balloon accident at the beginning of Enduring Love, the false accusation of Robbie in Atonement, and so on.

Although the death of Molly Lane at the beginning of Amsterdam appears set to follow this same pattern, it is not the central event. Instead, her death brings together two of her former lovers, the composer Clive Linley and the newspaper editor Vernon Halliday. Rather than a single event, McEwan provides his two main characters with two moments that have broader consequences: for Clive, his failure to intervene in a possible rape so that he can grasp hold of a moment of musical inspiration; for Vernon, his decision to publish front-page pictures of Julian Garmony, a right-wing politician who was also a former lover of Molly’s, dressed as a woman.

McEwan draws Clive and Vernon together first as friends and then, when circumstances turn against them, as enemies out to destroy each other. This pattern bears a strong resemblance to what happens to Bernard and June Tremaine, the husband and wife in Black Dogs who, having been drawn together by their Communist ideals, have their marriage torn apart by deep philosophical disagreements. Amsterdam and Black Dogs are both intended by McEwan, it seems to me, to be documents of their time, a summary judgment of the failures of the twentieth century as it draws to a close.

Like Bernard and June, Clive and Vernon are given opposing perspectives on the world – highbrow and lowbrow, artistic and commercial – that, for all their apparent disagreements, end up collapsing into an orgy of self-righteousness and mutual hatred. The perspective we get on the British media is, as one might expect, scathing, with McEwan delineating its willingness to plumb the depths of human depravity at the expense of any sort of sophistication or culture. Pages dedicated to literature and the arts are reassigned to sports, and real news is converted into grotesque sensationalism.

Just as scathing, though, is McEwan’s description of the complacency of the cultured elite. His assessment of how Clive has benefited from the post-war boom while denying the same privileges to the next generation is razor sharp, particularly when one considers that McEwan himself is a product of this era. “Nurtured in the postwar settlement with the state’s own milk and juice, and then sustained by their parents’ tentative, innocent prosperity, to come of age in full employment, new universities, bright paperback books, the Augustan age of rock and roll, affordable ideals,” writes McEwan. “When the ladder crumbled behind them, when the state withdrew her tit and became a scold, they were safe, they consolidated and settled down to forming this or that – taste, opinion, fortunes” (p.13). Such, then, is the state of post-Thatcher Britain, which forms part of a repeated pattern of social ideals that end in despair and inequality.

The curious thing about modernity, McEwan notes, is that this despair and inequality seems to emerge, paradoxically, from cultural origins that promise great beauty, joy, and hope. In making this point, Amsterdam points repeatedly back to the Romantics. The Millennium Symphony that Clive Linley is composing, for instance, is compared to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” In a conversation toward the end of the novel, Clive tells how he once set the Romantic poet William Blake’s “The Poison Tree” to music. And of course, when he is in need of inspiration, Clive habitually retreats to the Lake District, a region of England that occupies a privileged place in English letters, having inspired authors such as William Wordsworth and Jane Austen.

Initially when I got to the end of Amsterdam I was a bit nonplussed by the way that McEwan failed to upstage my expectations as to how the story would end. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that the novel’s depressing spiral was crucial to the point that McEwan was trying to make about the history of modernity, which is that no matter how forceful the push for change and reform, no matter how “enlightened” and scientifically advanced we become, the tedious fact remains that human society continues to resort to the old tactics of brutality and conflict. The more things appear to change, the more they stay the same. The city of Amsterdam comes to symbolize this paradox in the novel. “There was never a city more rationally ordered,” writes McEwan, and yet it turns out to be the place where people can get away with murder (p.168).

What makes Amsterdam a somewhat less successful novel than its closest cousin, Black Dogs, is its lack of a third perspective. In Black Dogs that role is played by Jeremy, Bernard and June’s son-in-law, who mediates between the conflict of the two central characters, and whose ability to see the gray areas that Bernard and June miss provides the novel with a hint of ambiguity and even hope. Amsterdam, however, feels a little unbalanced in this respect, and therefore underdeveloped – one might easily, one suspects, have transcended the doom and gloom of the bitter fight between Clive and Vernon by complicating our view of one of the other characters – Julien Garmony, perhaps, or George Lane, or even, best of all, Molly.

Rating: 3.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 25, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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