Sweet Tooth

Gjon Mili's cat

The New York Times article I mentioned I was interviewed for has been published, have a read here: Brontë’s Lovers, Facing Even More Storms. I admit, I was thrilled to see my book mentioned and linked. When you’ve worked on a book so hard, and for so many years, and then you send it off into the world with the knowledge that the response will most likely be silence, receiving any sort of feedback or a mention feels like a pat on the back.

The article was printed on 30 September in the New York Times, and the journalist told me on 29 September in the International Herald Tribune. Before I pester my friends in the US/UK about sending me copies, if anyone would be happy to volunteer, please send me an email (I’ll reimburse for any costs, of course).

Okay, moving on, because I actually want to talk about Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, which I finished reading about a week ago. When I finished it, I wanted to read Atonement again, and I finished re-reading that yesterday. Sweet Tooth seems to be the ‘comedy’ to Atonement’s ‘tragedy’; it explores the same underlying themes, but from a different angle. After reading both together, I’m reminded of an essay I once wrote on Shakespeare as an undergrad, about how the genres we place upon his plays are artificial categories, but also, a way to navigate his themes as modern-day readers of plays that were originally performed and interpreted differently. Likewise, me categorising Sweet Tooth as a ‘comedy’ version of Atonement, is an artificial category, I’m aware. But it’s also a way for me to explain how these books ‘talk’ to each other, and to the reader.

I was initially really put off by the description of Sweet Tooth’s plot when I was deciding whether to read it: a thriller spy story. Not my kind of thing, I normally dislike spy stories. I love detective fiction, but something about the specific mode of spy thrillers just bores me. But Sweet Tooth, like Atonement, is more than its plot summary. A reader who doesn’t like romantic tragedy for example could easily turn away from Atonement, not realising the book has another subtext. The same could be said about Sweet Tooth, and I’m glad I read it, despite my initial misgivings.

I enjoyed Sweet Tooth right from the first page. You fall into it like something light and frothy, but there’s a tension building up within each page that makes you realise a bite is coming. The reason I read the book in a relationship with Atonement is because both are essentially about the role of fiction, the role of the reader and the relationship between the author and his/her readers. In Atonement, this is given a serious treatment. In Sweet Tooth, everything is a playful game of intrigue.

There are many authors who play with this theme of authorial self-consciousness, asking the reader to question the story which they are reading, as well as their own authorial voice. McEwan playfully draws attention to such authors through his reader/spy heroine, Serena, while doing the same thing she criticises to his own readers:

I wasn’t impressed by those writers (they were spread between South and North America) who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life. Or, to the contrary, to insist that life was a fiction anyway. Only writers, I thought, were ever in danger of confusing the two. I was a born empiricist. I believed that writers were paid to pretend, ... 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 Sweet Tooth is all about the double agent, and the fluidity between life and fiction. My interest in the book is similar to my interest in Atonement: what do both suggest about us, the readers? To me, both books compel their reader to be self-reflexive about not only the role of writing and fiction, but also the role of reading: why do we accept certain versions of ‘reality’ over others, why do certain books enter our own life narratives, why do we cling to fiction and storytelling, how do books change the nature of our own realities as readers?

Unlike Sweet Tooth’s spy reader, Serena, I like self-reflexivity in my fiction, but I don’t like it to be coolly pretentious. I don’t think McEwan crosses over into such pretention, and he often takes care to remind the reader that these games of fiction versus reality are often the privilege of those who have the education, time and practical means with which to play them. Writing and reading, he reminds us, are a privilege, and in that sense, we should treat both with the dual level of seriousness and playfulness they deserve: as both comedies and tragedies.

I’m now feeling rather lost, having finished so many books I had on my bedside table. So please, can anyone recommend me a new book?

Image credit: ‘Gjon Mili’s cat Blackie steps gingerly among empty drinking glasses left on top of the piano after an all-night jam session at his (Mili’s, not the cat’s) studio, 1942’. For reasons I’m unable to fully explain, the cat in this photo reminds me of how I felt after reading the last page of Sweet Tooth.