Sometime in the early 1980s, writer Ian McEwan earned himself a nickname in the British press. He was Ian McAbre, a devotee of the darkly lurid and the creepily disturbing; his works known to variously throw up corpses buried in gardens, sadomasochistic strangers or violent dismembering of dead bodies.
Works like Amsterdam (which won him the Booker in 1998), Atonement (2001) and Solar (2010) marked a change of course, from a study of “perversity” to that of “normality” as a 2009 essay in The New Yorker pointed out.
Sweet Tooth is a journey further along that novelistic arc: an exploration of the genre’s possibilities, an exhibition of its limitations. Set in the heart of the Cold War, it takes us back to England in 1972. “I wanted to return to spy novels,” McEwan tells me over the telephone from London. The tumultuous 70s, marked in England by the extremities of politics and that “overwhelming sense of decline”, is its perfect backdrop. McEwan’s protagonist is the young and beautiful Serena Frome, whose proficiency with numbers and chess propels her towards an undergraduate degree in Mathematics at Cambridge. While there, Serena mulls over novels more than her math, but it is her column for the student rag ?Quis?, a breezy comment on literature that morphs into an anti-Communist harangue, which proves to be the turning point.
Unwittingly, Serena defines herself as a “trainee Cold Warrior”; before long, her brief dalliance with the elderly academic Tony Canning becomes her stepping stone to a job (albeit a lowly secretarial one, given her gender)in MI5.
McEwan is not limited to the conventions of a genre thriller, and he allows himself the pleasure of a literary love affair as well as deliberations on the function of the novel and the nature of the imagination. But it is Sweet Tooth - a project initiated by the MI5 as part of the cultural battle for hearts and minds - which lets him probe the insidious roles that institutions play in our lives.
As an intelligence project, Sweet Tooth is supposed to fund fiction writing by young writers, academics and journalists while a benign foundation acted as a front: “Typically, they'll have a book they want to write and need to take time off from a demanding job”.
Serena;’s familiarity with contemporary literature makes her suitable, and she’s one of several whom MI5 tasks with ‘running’ prospective writers. The idea is to “encourage the right good thing”: less decline of the west, more championing of free speech and democracy.
“Sweet Tooth itself is an invention,” McEwan points out, though there are recorded instances of the Information and Research Department in England backing publishers who, in their turn, backed writers. The controversy surrounding the CIA’s funding of Encounter magazine (which led to Stephen Spender, its founder-editor, stepping down) is another source of inspiration. Arts foundations play an important role, McEwan acknowledges, often making it possible for young writers to afford the privilege of solitude so essential for writing.
And yet, one has to be wary of “oversubsidising literary culture”. “It’s a balance you've got to strike,” he says.
Given its nomenclature, an element of rottenness is already built into Sweet Tooth. Serena’s target is the promising Tom Haley, an “Atlanticist at heart”, with five short stories published to his credit. Serena's a sucker for social realism: she wants her own world in the fiction she reads. That does not come in the way, though, of weaning Haley, with his predilection for postmodernist positioning, away from his university job to a life of writing, or in her ending up in bed with him.
The theme of betrayal, underwritten in the novel right from when young women employees were made to rat on each other, now reaches its logical apotheosis: Serena’s blurred the distinction between the personal and the professional, between what is reality and what is role-play.
McEwan draws on many of his previous works – short stories published, a novel abandoned – peppering them through Sweet Tooth as examples of Haley’s work. They work as “displaced commentaries” on the main narrative, he says, allowing him to rework some of his early writings and “creating variations on a theme”. The result is not always harmonious, as if an ageing author past his prime is labouring (and borrowing from the past) to stress too fine a point.
Structural dissonances apart, McEwan's story powerfully resonates with the times, where moral corruption is but a subset of the larger institutional corruption all around. Human devilry is limited but damaging when it gets subsumed in the vicious cycle of money, power and influence; institutions acquire lives of their own, setting themselves tasks that they otherwise needn't have attempted.