Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thursday Review: Sweet Tooth

This is one of those book reviews that has a lesson for writers.  I finished Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan two Sundays ago and was really disappointed with it.  One of the main reasons was that as the book went on there were no real stakes involved in it.

The plot is like this:  an airhead girl named Serena gets a job at MI5 thanks to having an affair with some old married guy.  She's assigned to this program called Sweet Tooth where MI5 covertly pays writers in the hope that they'll write anti-Soviet stuff, this being 1973.  But we don't actually tell them to write anything anti-Soviet; maybe the handler just tries to give some hints or something.  The airhead gets hooked up with this pretentious academic named Tom Healy.  Like me he uses fake initials:  TH Healy.  Instead of writing anything anti-Soviet he basically writes Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Now (spoiler alert!) of course the link between Serena and MI5 is eventually discovered.  But so what?  That was my thought.  I mean so what if some bimbo gets fired from her menial job.  So what if some pretentious asshole's career gets ruined.  He wasn't even that interested in writing novels in the first damned place, so the fact he might not get to write more didn't seem to matter.  And this Sweet Tooth thing wasn't exactly the Manhattan Project; it was more on par with the "Cash for Clunkers" program.  (They were giving cash for clunkers of books--zing!)

Basically then I'm waiting for the whole book for something to make me give a damn.  Nothing ever materialized.  I might have given more of a damn if the author hadn't spent the first quarter of the book sabotaging Serena the narrator.  He goes to great lengths to make sure we all knew how dull she was by relating how she goes to college for a degree in mathematics (at her mother's behest) but finds she can't compete with the males on campus.  (Because women stink at math, amIright?!)  And how she reads tons of books but gulps them down so fast that she doesn't really absorb anything from them.  So basically to sum up the first 100 pages or so of the book:  Serena is a bimbo who would have been content marrying some rich guy and being a hostess the rest of her life but instead gets to be an office drone at MI5.

Then for no real reason the author decides to pull an M. Night Shymalan on us and introduce a "shocking" twist that really means nothing.  (Spoiler alert!) The whole book while narrated by Serena is actually Tom writing what he thinks Serena is thinking.  McEwan pulled largely the same stunt in his much-better Atonement where it turned out the book was actually a book being written by the narrator but that she had changed certain facts to allow for a happy ending for certain people.  There was actually a point to that twist ending; there was no point to this twist except to say, "Gotcha!"

But again, why should I give a damn?  So it's Tom relating this dull story instead of Serena?  Big whoop.  There's still absolutely no reason I should give a shit about either of them because the author (McEwan through Tom through Serena) spent the whole book lowering the stakes to such a level that there's absolutely nothing gained or lost when things come to a head.  If Serena loses her job, so what?  It was a shitty job.  Again, if Healy couldn't write another novel, so what?  He showed no inclination of wanting to write another.  If the Sweet Tooth program was torn down, so what?  It didn't seem to be accomplishing anything anyway.  If Serena and Healy don't hook up, so what?  She's a bimbo and he's the kind of pretentious tool I'd just as soon punch in the face.  The world seems better off if they don't reproduce.

The lesson for writers then is you got to have some stakes involved.  If there's nothing really to be gained or won at the end, then why is the reader bothering to read the book?  And if you're writing a first-person narrative don't have the narrator spend the first quarter of the book tearing herself down.  I mean if the narrator doesn't even think she's worth a shit then why am I the reader going to think she's worth reading?

Anyway, despite the publisher's attempts to make this sound like an espionage thriller a la John le Carre, this is basically a dull literary novel.  I'm sure literary critics loved it, but ordinary Grumpy Bulldogs found it trite and dull for all the reasons above.  (2/5 stars)


  1. Would this be considered an example of the unreliable narrator or just a bimbo?

    1. Well since "Serena" is really Tom writing as Serena that would seem pretty unreliable.

  2. This sounds like a main character that would be hard to feel invested in. As a reader I really need to care about the character.

  3. I'm with you, although I didn't read it. I read a review that revealed the twist, and thought "Eh." Didn't sound important.

    I've noticed, though, that the "Narrator is not a real person" trend in fiction is kind of a thing. I didn't even realize it until I decided to go that route with "This Is How I...", but in that story, the narrator was a ghost (?) dreamt up by the corpse of his dead body. In this one, the narrator maybe is a fictional creation of the author's. In "John Dies At The End," (SPOILER ALERT!) the narrator is a monster, and there are twists of sorts like those in both Nick Harkaway books I read this year.

    I wonder if that is a new trend: the narrator of the book not actually existing, or not having been the person you thought they were. Seems like the kind of thing that would make for a good "Best Of Everything" post: The Best Narrator (Who Never Existed.)" Too bad I don't do that blog anymore.

    In any event, I'd decided to skip this book even before your review.

    But I take it that at the end of the Scarlet Knight books, Becky doesn't turn out to have been telling Scarlet Knight stories all along?

    1. Serena presumably exists but it turns out our conception of her from the book might differ from how she actually is. (It really should have been obvious that Serena's too dumb to write a book on her own.)

      One of the original ways I thought of doing the Scarlet Knight books was to have Marlin narrating Emma's story to a future Scarlet Knight, sort of a Princess Bride thing. Then that seemed too limited so I just used old fashioned 3rd person limited.



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