Sweet Tooth

Monday, 1 October 2012

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.

17 comments:

Portrait of Curiosities said...

Congratulations on the article. I too was published this week, well sort of (radio interview). Sweet tooth sounds like a great book, will have to check it out. Good luck with all of your endevours.

Anonymous said...

In the same genre- of sorts - William Boyd's 'Waiting for Sunrise'.

hannah debbie said...

thanks for the recommendation! I actually have a huge bizarre interest in Soviet spy stories and such and am now looking forward to reading the book.

congrats on the article!

Jane Flanagan said...

Congrats again on the article - a wonderful read.

I didn't enjoy the last McEwan so have been slow to pick this one up. But I like what you have to say about it (found myself thinking of Auster's NY Trilogy), so I'll add it to the list!

Sally said...

For some reason, although I enjoyed Sweet Tooth while I was reading it, I finished the book unsatisfied. I think the characters bothered me...but maybe reading Atonement will give Sweet Tooth a new meaning to me.

Off to read the NYT article! :)

Sarah Allegra said...

Oh my goodness, congratulation on the article! That's so exciting :)

I am always in the midst of reading several books at any given time, but I will try and narrow my suggestions for you. In fiction, A Fine and Private Place, by Peter S. Beagle (or anything else by him) or Deerskin, by Robin McKinley (or anything else by her, but I feel like you'd REALLY "get" and love Deerskin; I re-read it often in times of stress).

In non-fiction, I loved a memoir by Whitney Robinson about her psychotic break; Demons in the Age of Light. Her writing is pure poetry; so beautiful. Less poetic, but still very powerful was The Worst Hard Time, about the American Great Depression and Dust Bowl.

All of these books and authors have inspired photos of mine, which is the true litmus test for me in deciding how good a book is :)

Gabi Menezes said...

Hila
Congratulations on your book, and on the article. A long-time reader on your lovely, thoughtful blog, but I've never really commented. I keep thinking when I read you that you would enjoy 'Fugitive Pieces' by Ann Michaels. It certainly weaves together some of the themes that concern you.

Teresa said...

Congratulations on your article Hila!

I loved McEwan's Atonement so thank you for publishing this review of Sweet Tooth. I will have to read it.

rooth said...

Congrats on the article! I'll be adding Sweet Tooth to my list. I know I can always rely on your blog for good book recommendations.

Have you read The Lost Books of the Odyssey? I actually quite enjoyed that one

Maša said...

I loved everything I have so far read by Ian McEwan (I still have to read Sweet Tooth). I read Atonement about a month ago and I enjoyed every single word of it. I'm not really a fan of romantic tragedy and war themes often bore me, but the book kept me highly interested from beginning to end.
I don't have a book recommendation for you, but you may like to check An LGBT Reading event that is going on this month: http://roofbeamreader.com/2012/10/01/the-literary-others-an-lgbt-reading-event-master-post/ I'll read Virginia Woolf's Orlando first. :)

Monika said...

Congrats on your article! It was fun to read, though as i haven't yet read Wuthering Heights, I was sad about all of the plot description. Oh well.

I enjoyed this post very much. I really liked Atonement. When I got to the end of that book--oh, such an ending! I am still proud of the narrator and the author for their deliberate choices in storytelling.

Have you ever read The Bone People by Keri Hulme? It is wonderful. It was published about 20 years ago and is relatively unknown, even though it won a Booker. I have bought multiple copies, as I lend mine to friends and never seem to get them back.

Amelia said...

I want to read that book so much, but then someone should create a 34 hour day. Just for me.

It depends on what you want to read. I am currently read Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship, but I don't think you would be very interested. Maybe something from Francoise Sagan or Borges? Or some short stories/poetry from Boris Vian?

cluelesspixie said...

Congrats on the article! Also, congrats on having read all of the books on your bedside table. That never seems to happen to me.

I love your way of writing. So much. I never stop feeling grateful for how the connectedness of today's world brings me in reach of people who I would otherwise never have the chance to meet - and what a great pity that would be...

As regards book recommendations, I keep recommending the stories of Claire Keegan to everyone. I read Walk the Blue Fields a while ago and I still think of that book as of something of a perfect work of fiction.

Hila said...

Thank you for all the book recommendations everyone!

Portrait of Curiosities: Congratulations on your own interview.

Anonymous: Thanks for the recommendation!

hannah debbie: I'm not sure how this books compares with other soviet spy stories, so I hope you like it.

Jane: I didn't enjoy his last novel either, which is why I was reluctant to read this one. But I'm glad I gave it a chance.

Sally; I guess they weren't 'deep' characters. I don't know, I sort of felt it didn't really matter what they were like, but what the story was seeking to do through them. I don't feel like that about every book though.

Sarah: Thanks for all the recommendations, I really appreciate it!

Gabi: Hello! I often wonder who lurks but never comments :) Thanks so much for the books suggestion, it sounds good.

Teresa: I hope you enjoy it!

Rooth: nope, I haven't read it, I'll put it on my list.

Masa: Spy stories often bore me, but like you, I found that his books are often about something else.

Monika: You should give Wuthering Heights a try!

Amelia: and for me too, I need more hours in the day.

Cluelesspixie: It rarely happens to me either!

L▲UR▲ said...

congrats on the article hila, so proud of you!

Hila said...

Thank you Laura!

Leah said...

So I only just got through my blog reader after a month away, and this is a very late comment, but I do so love reading intelligent book reviews!

If you love detective fiction, I don't want to recommend something you've already read, but I can never recommend Dorothy Sayers enough. She is my favourite detective novelist by a mile, and a relatively early female classical scholar.

If you like self-reflexivity IN your detective fiction, you can't go a step further without reading Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop.

Hopefully something new there!