There’s a feeling that comes with finishing a really good book; a cathartic, almost depressing feeling, where you’re certain that you never want to read again. Where you don’t actually want to do anything — you just want to enjoy the feeling of completion and of ending. There aren’t many books that can create that catharthis — I could probably count them on one hand.
Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth is not one of those books. That’s not to say it’s not good–but, similar to many of McEwan’s books, it creates a strange dissonance. Reading is an act unto itself — but after reading McEwan, more often than not, I want to write. And, indeed, that’s how I felt after completing his most recent novel.
What’s it about? It’s about a pretty, blue-eyed, blond-haired almost-secret agent in England during the post-Cold War era. First, Serena (our heroine) dates an ex-Communist, then she dates an actual agent, and then she dates her “target” — an up and coming author who seems a little too clever, whose prose lines up a little too closer with the double life that our protagonist is leading.
It’s a book in which every character is lying, and the reader knows — but some of the lies are truer than the rest. THe main character feels herself to always be in the thick of things, but to the reader, it’s clear that she doesn’t know anything at all. She’s assigned to go out and find a novelist, and the government will pay him money. That is literally her only secret task, for the entire book. She hoards this, reflects on it often, but it’s clear to the reader that the government couldn’t care less about her side project. Similarly, she fixates on how pretty she is, and how much men want her — but doesn’t notice that she inevitably changes to fit the ideal of whatever man she is currently with. She is pretty, and they do want her — but there’s a sense that some of her desirability is ingrained in her malleability.
Then there is the literature in the book. Everyone is a reader, from an old communist who focuses on propaganda, to the writer himself who reads only “true literature,” to our protagonist who reads almost anything that is handed to her, but who doesn’t understand any of it. Theme and poetry and subtext is lost on her — she likes only the surface level of the story.
But the book isn’t really about our plucky heroine; it’s about writing. It’s about taking the truest part of oneself and transforming it into fiction, weaving the real and the unreal together to create art. Serena herself creates this fiction; she lies about her job to everyone, despite no need to; she creates drama in the most mundane of tasks, transforming a cleaning job into a top secret mission, and assuming connections that don’t exist. It’s also about what makes literature great. Sometimes, it’s poetic language and the ability of the writer to evoke pathos in the reader. Sometimes it’s about an engaging and exciting plot. Sometimes it’s about the “Marry Me” that comes at the end, and sometimes it’s the final tableau of a dying city.
This isn’t the first time that McEwan has written a book essentially about writing, and it’s not his best (for that, read Atonement, a tour de force that is both a sappy romance, a cataclysmic war novel, and an inspired ode to a dying art). It may be among his happiest, though. And, it’s certainly the first that inspired me to do something more.