The cover of 'Sweet Tooth' by author Ian McEwan. (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday )
Nan A. Talese: 320 pp., $26.95
Ian McEwan's storytelling at its best is a slow burn with a deliciously unexpected grand conflagration — taking the quiet life of a somewhat-flawed protagonist and throwing it into violent disarray with a few bad decisions and sadistic twists.
The subject of "Sweet Tooth," McEwan's latest novel, would seem at first to be the perfect vehicle for this kind of storytelling. It is, after all, a '70s-era British spy novel in the mode of John le Carré, a cigarette-hazed world of secret backrooms and Cold War intrigue. His protagonist is Serena Frome, a "really quite gorgeous" 23-year-old Cambridge math student who is recruited to join MI5 via an older history professor from the "great and good" mold.
Quite the girl about campus, Serena rarely meets a man she doesn't want to sleep with — no matter how unattractive, aged or gay — and Professor Canning is no exception. Their affair is didactic and abortive, and not long after he dumps her by the side of the road she finds herself working as a glorified secretary for England's famous spy agency.
"Finds herself" being the operative term — Serena is no super spy but a woman of average intelligence (a third in maths; enthusiasm for "The Valley of The Dolls") and apparently little agency. The first half of the book, Serena mostly meanders the gray, dour halls of MI5, engaging in affairs with unappealing men, attending lectures about the dangers of communism, and debating the internecine politics of British spy bureaucracy.
From this murk, a story finally emerges: Serena's superiors, noting her love for literature of all stripes, put her in charge of her first mission: She is to secretly recruit and fund a novelist, as part of a propaganda campaign called "Sweet Tooth." The agenda: Stoke the careers of writers who already tend to write stridently pro-capitalist works — nothing about "the decline of the West, or down with progress or any other modish pessimism" — and win the disenchanted British public's hearts and minds.
Serena being Serena, she immediately jumps into bed with her recruit, a promising young essayist and University of Sussex professor (bearing no small resemblance to McEwan himself) named Tom Haley. Before long, they're in love and Haley — released from the grind of his university job — has produced an unfortunately dark, dystopian novella (think Cormac McCarthy's "The Road").
Almost overnight, he's winning literary prizes and drinking whiskey with Martin Amis (wink wink). Will Serena's cover be blown? Can their relationship survive her subterfuge? And how will Serena's superiors feel about funding Tom's decidedly anti-capitalist fiction?
The spy conceit of "Sweet Tooth" proves disappointingly thin. McEwan makes a halfhearted attempt at '70s espionage intrigue — a truncated subplot about whether Canning was a Russian double agent, padded with some paranoia about surveillance teams called "The Watchers" and a mysterious bloodstained mattress in a safe house — but the drama is much ado about nothing of great interest.
The real subject of this novel is literature. "Sweet Tooth" is ultimately about the relationship between writers and readers: how frequently the writing of fiction is a form of infiltration and identity theft, how readers seek themselves in books, how much we know about an author from his creations.
"I suppose I was … looking for something, a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a favorite pair of old shoes. Or a wild silk blouse," Serena ponders, as she recalls her passion for reading. "For it was my best self I wanted, not the girl hunched in the evenings in her junk-shop chair over a cracked-spine paperback." And, after consuming Haley's short stories: "I had been inside a stranger's mind. Vulgar curiosity made me wonder if every sentence confirmed or denied or masked a secret intention. I felt closer to Tom Haley than I would if he'd been a colleague in the Registry these past nine months."
As a protagonist, Serena is frustrating — the dryly ponderous voice with which McEwan endows her rarely matches the simple woman participating in the book's events. For long stretches, the book is not only disappointingly flat but strangely disjointed: Where is McEwan's smoldering storytelling in this meandering meditation — the slowly compounding horror of a single bad day in "Saturday," the decaying dead body in the basement of "The Cement Garden," the euthanasia pact that hangs like a bomb about to explode over "Amsterdam"? Nothing seems to be building toward much of anything.
It isn't until the last third of the novel, when Tom and Serena's affair is underway, that the novel picks up steam and begins to grow cohesive. Bit by bit, frustrating odds and ends — characters who seemed, to this point, to serve no narrative purpose — are threaded together.
And it isn't until the thrilling final 18 pages that McEwan, the master storyteller, proves that he's been in control this entire time. In an "Atonement"-like twist, he turns his narrative upside-down, casting the events of the novel in a whole new light. Finally, it's the flambé we've been waiting for.
What we learn at the end should make readers want to flip back through the book and re-read it with opened eyes; unfortunately, the experience of wading through "Sweet Tooth" the first time dispels much urge to read it again.
Brown is the author of "This is Where We Live."