Lately, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan seems to have developed a peculiar fascination with botched first couplings and penile misadventures. His last novel, “Solar,” boasted a cringe-making scene featuring a frostbitten phallus’s unfortunate encounter with a zipper. The novel before that, “On Chesil Beach,” set in 1962, builds to a tragic moment of fumbled copulation between two virgins that ends a marriage on its first night, recharting the lives of the main characters.
His new novel, “Sweet Tooth,” set in 1972, features multiple awkward first couplings between the main character, Serena Frome, and a series of lovers. (“I lost my virginity in my first term, several times over it seemed, the general style being so wordless and clumsy. . . ”) A description of one such encounter, narrated by Serena, features the line: “He turned out to be a tender and considerate lover, despite his unfortunate, sharply angled pubic bone” — an unexpected sequence of words the first time you encounter it, and a wholly unforgettable one when, for reasons that I can’t reveal without giving away a twist, you encounter a variation of those words a second time.
But “Sweet Tooth,” unlike “On Chesil Beach,” is not mainly about sex — it’s about spying and reading. Serena, an omnivorous and proudly indiscriminate reader, declares her literary tastes early in the novel. She reads pulp fiction and great literature “and everything in between,” gobbling up Ian Fleming’s “Octopussy” and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in quick succession, and declaring “Valley of the Dolls” to be as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. “My needs were simple,” she explains of her reading appetites. “I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about was to happen to them . . . It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end.”
At the insistence of her mother, Serena ends up studying “the wrong subject” — math — at Cambridge, where she drifts into a relationship with a classmate who cannot achieve orgasm (see what I mean about the penis-problem fixation?), and then into another love affair with that student’s eminent history tutor, Tony Canning, who turns out to have been a veteran of MI5, the British spy agency. Even after her affair with Canning abruptly ends, Serena continues on the career path he has set her on, taking a position as a low-level bureaucratic functionary at MI5.
Because of her knowledge of contemporary fiction, she is given responsibility for helping to administer “Sweet Tooth,” a program to secretly fund left-wing, anticommunist writers, doing combat on the cultural front of the Cold War. The first writer she is asked to evaluate, and then to fund via a front organization, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex named Tom Haley. Haley’s stories — equal parts Chekhovian and gothic — are summarized in detail and sometimes directly quoted; one of the pleasures of this novel is that it contains a brilliant short-story collection within.
Serena is captivated by Tom’s stories — and then, after meeting him in person, by Tom himself. In short order they become lovers, setting up a predicament for Serena. At what point, if ever, should she reveal that she works for MI5? Should she keep the secret from him, rationalizing that she is supporting his art (as, in fact, she is), even though she knows he would renounce that support — and possibly her — if he were to learn his funding’s true source? Eventually, her bosses at MI5 discover she has taken her literary charge as her lover, and they fire her.
Nothing I have written here gives anything away. In fact, Serena summarizes all of it in the very first paragraph of her narrative. But McEwan masterfully allows Serena to tell her story as a series of unexpected revelations, a continuous peeling back of veils that allows her to see anew events that she (and we) had understood one way but in fact turn out to be quite another. McEwan also skillfully evokes the England of the early 1970s — the strikes, the IRA terror, the drug culture, the general sense of decline and fall. He also captures the cloistered logic of institutional bureaucracy, the “gray world of MI5,” as the service pursues questionable ends via baffling means, often causing collateral damage all around.
According to Serena’s typology of literature, there are two kinds of novels: those built on realistic plot and character, and those built on artifice and literary pyrotechnics. Her declared preference is strongly for the former. (While on a reading jag after the end of her affair with Canning, she says “I believed that writers were paid to pretend, and where appropriate should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever they had made up. So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent.”)
But the very book she’s narrating falls into both categories: It is, on one level, a “Marry me” romance of the conventional Jane Austen sort Serena likes, and it is also a set of Russian dolls nestled inside one other, a series of narrative frames that enfold upon themselves in a highly postmodern way.
The novel’s metafictional elements are abundant but, until the end, quite subtle. One clue is that Tom Haley is a not-at-all disguised version of young Ian McEwan: their shared biographical details are legion, and McEwan’s real-life publisher, Tom Maschler, and his real-life literary compatriot, Martin Amis, both make appearances that are incidentally relevant to the plot machinery. Most notably, some of those short stories Haley writes are very similar, at times effectively identical, to stories McEwan published early in his career.
What is McEwan up to here? A weirdly refracted fictional autobiography? A meditation on the art and artifice of fiction? A commentary on the vampiric tendency of novelists to mine their friends’ lives for “material”? (Serena worries, with reason, that Haley is mentally recording their lovemaking sessions for his fiction.) John Barth, one of the postmodern writers that Serena explicitly renounces, has a short story, “Ever After,” in which the narrative concludes by referring to the piece of punctuation, a period, at its end; the story manages at once to inhabit its fictional universe and to stand outside it. McEwan here accomplishes something similar. The reader’s response (or at least this reader’s response) to the trick was a mixture of awe at the author’s cleverness and chagrin at having been so egregiously manipulated. Is McEwan merely playing devilish games at our expense?
But the novel’s emotional and intellectual satisfactions outweigh its frustrations. McEwan has pulled off something remarkable here: “Sweet Tooth” is a suspenseful plot-and-character-driven novel with an unexpected postmodern twist. It’s Jane Austen meets John Le Carré meets John Barth — not a combination that I imagine anyone has ever walked into a bookstore seeking. But it’s one whose delights turn out to be considerable.
Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic.