Ian McEwan’s coy new novel, “Sweet Tooth,” begins with an intriguing confession from the narrator: “My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost 40 years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within 18 months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”
So we start off knowing how Serena’s story will end. The mystery, it would appear, has to do only with the details of her mission, the identity of her lover and the nature of her undoing. But what begins as a sort of Cold War le Carre tale about a spy (and the psychology of spying) soon mutates into something else: a tricky postmodern entertainment that features, in the role of Serena’s lover, a writer who bears more than passing resemblance to the younger McEwan himself.
The result is a clever but annoying novel that lacks both the deeply felt emotion of this author’s dazzling 2001 masterpiece, “Atonement,” and the chilling exactitude of his 1998 Booker Prize-winning thriller, “Amsterdam.” About halfway through readers may begin to suspect what the story’s concluding twist might be, and when we reach the end, we realize that the puzzle pieces McEwan has hand carved don’t quite come together with the sort of authoritative click that might have made for a fully satisfying novel.
Throughout his career McEwan has demonstrated a gift for portraying disagreeable characters with psychological precision: the pair of conniving and self-deluding opportunists in “Amsterdam,” the children who bury their mother in the basement in “The Cement Garden,” the 13-year-old girl in “Atonement” who tells a monstrous lie that will send her sister’s boyfriend to jail and shatter the family’s sheltered existence.
In this case Serena comes across as a smug, narcissistic young thing who had no scruples about bouncing from one lover to another while using or deceiving them with cavalier aplomb. She also emerges as a highly unprofessional employee who thinks little of endangering her first big mission — never mind the reputation of the intelligence service — by getting romantically involved with the very subject of her assignment.
As Serena tells it, she was recruited for MI5 in 1972 by one Tony Canning, the married, middle-aged history tutor she was seeing while she was a student at Cambridge. She wanted to live up to Tony’s expectations — in this she resembles many le Carre characters, who are eager to please and who find it alarmingly easy to lie — and she soon finds herself with an entry-level job at the intelligence service. Eventually, she is asked to take part in an operation code-named “Sweet Tooth,” which involves using a phony foundation to cultivate writers who might promote an anti-Marxist, pro-West perspective in articles or speeches. The writer Serena is sent to target is a young man named Tom Haley, who has published some short stories and some journalism, and who is in need of a stipend to continue his work.
A lot of details in Serena’s account of her life don’t quite add up, forcing the reader to wonder just how reliable a narrator she might be. Though Canning’s role in her hiring is not to be discounted, Serena seems a most unlikely choice for such an assignment. She was a math major — and a poor one — at Cambridge, and her taste in literature is, to say the least, unsophisticated: She thinks “Valley of the Dolls” is “as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote.” In fact she seems a most untrustworthy espionage recruit. She’s full of herself, easy to anger and a total hussy when it comes to men.
Serena is the sort of reader who likes her fictions straight. She doesn’t like tricks, she says, she “liked life as I knew it recreated on the page.” And after reading Tom’s stories she immediately tries to draw connections between the author and his heroes. She’s soon in bed with him, and the more she grows to like him, the more doubts she has about coming clean about her MI5 mission.
As for Tom Haley, he has a lot in common with the author of this novel. Like McEwan he got a degree in English at the University of Sussex. Like McEwan he had the eminent Tom Maschler as an editor and got to know Martin Amis and Ian Hamilton. And like McEwan he first gained recognition for some macabre short stories; in fact at least two of the fictions attributed to Tom in these pages — one about a father and daughter wandering through a post-apocalyptic world and one about a man who falls in love with a store mannequin — are highly reminiscent of stories McEwan published in his 1978 collection, “In Between the Sheets.”
In playing these mirror games, McEwan seems to want to make the reader think about the lines between life and art, and the similarities between spying and writing. He also seems to want to make us reconsider the assumptions we make when we read a work of fiction. As usual his prose is effortlessly seductive. And he does a nimble job too of conjuring London in the 1970s — with its economic woes, worries about IRA bombings and uneasy assimilation of the countercultural changes of the ’60s. These aspects of “Sweet Tooth” keep the reader trucking on through the novel, but alas they’re insufficient compensation for the story’s self-conscious contrivance and foreseeable conclusion.