Thursday, 18 July 2013

'Be careful what you make up'

Warning: this post will contain spoilers for both Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth and Lionel Shriver's The New Republic. I've made my general feelings about 'spoilers' clear, so believe me when I say these are two novels where spoiler warnings actually carry some weight!

The first paragraph of Sweet Tooth is strongly reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro's ominous opening to Never Let Me Go: 'My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That'll make it almost exactly twelve years.' While this may not have been intentional, McEwan's version certainly strikes similar chords in the reader: 'My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn't return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, although he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.'

The thing about both these openings is that they suggest a false confidentiality, an openness about the narrator that is not borne out in the text, and also adopt the style of a straightforward autobiographical narrative, even though this is already called into question by the information they choose not to give. Serena is more direct than Kathy, but even her summary of the events of the novel we are about to read is distinguished by what it omits; interestingly, re-reading it again having finished the novel, it seems entirely unrelated to what we have actually read. In the same way, Kathy's use of sanitised vocabulary such as 'carer' hides the horror at the heart of her story, although the reader is positioned differently; in Kathy's world, we're an insider, someone who will know what she's talking about, whereas in Serena's, we are privileged tourists. Both novels, however, lull us into a false sense of security by the smoothness of their prose; they are both so easy to read that we forget to question at first.

McEwan is rightly famous for his opening scenes, and while the opening of Sweet Tooth is the inverse of his usual set-piece, summarising the first twenty years of Serena's life without pausing for breath, it's immensely effective. Where Sweet Tooth fails to live up to the promise of its opening lines is in the closing of the novel. This is a consciously postmodern read, full of mistaken identities, reveals, lies and switches, and it's only at the end that we realise we have fallen victim to the biggest narrative trick of all - Serena herself is the creation of Tom Haley, the writer at the heart of the novel, and her life story has been carefully constructed. Her confidential moments - 'Now that the mirror tells a different story, I can say it and get it out of the way. I really was pretty' - and her experience of being a woman in the man's world of MI5 - 'I absorbed the general spirit of the place, and... began to accept that in this small part of the adult world... women were of a lower caste' - have been imagined by a male author. Of course, the irony of this is that we always knew we were reading a novel by a middle-aged man, not a twenty-year-old woman, and much has been made of the way in which Tom Daley's early writing career mirrors McEwan's. But although superficially fascinating, I ultimately felt that McEwan's twist ending - especially as he's already done something very similar in Atonement  - was something of a cop-out.

In one sense, the writer who uses a device like this has given himself the ultimate out. Any uncertainties about the internal workings of MI5, any inconsistencies in Serena's voice, and any criticisms of how long she spends lingering over Tom's short stories, can be fielded by saying that Tom wrote this, and the problems are his. This makes it important that the device is used not just for temporary literary fireworks, but to say something significant about the nature of identity, and the ways that we tell stories about ourselves and others. It's here that I think Sweet Tooth fails. While Atonement explored how easily we can fall into the satisfying traps of narrative, and Sweet Tooth plays with similar ideas in its use of the 'marriage plot', I didn't feel that anything had really changed once I learnt that the novel was Tom's narrative, not Serena's. In a way, her self-construction was always so conscious that, even if she had 'written' the text, the reader would still have been left questioning what the true story really was, and perhaps this would have been a more interesting experiment to try altogether. Indeed, the one question worth asking that Sweet Tooth leaves open is how this story fell into our hands. Tom implies that he will not be able to publish it for forty years, and, in the meantime, asks for Serena's input - but we don't know if she did edit this work, or if we simply have access to his initial version before he put it into the fire.

Perhaps Sweet Tooth's twist simply came too late, leaving us with a solid block of novel that is called into question by the last-minute revelation, but not shaken apart at its core as a truly daring narrative of self-identity would necessitate. Serena's smooth narration is, ultimately, too convincing; it lacks the cracks that Kathy allows us to see, and we fall for it too entirely. It's in this context that I started thinking about Lionel Shriver's The New Republic, which I read alongside this novel. Although I don't have the time to review it fully here, it differs from Sweet Tooth in placing its key narrative twist at the centre of the novel, and I think that works much better. In brief, novice journalist Edgar Kellogg is sent to the fictional Portuguese province of Barba to report on terrorist group SOB who are fighting for Barban independence, only to discover that SOB are the fictional creation of his predecessor, Barrington Sadler. By having Edgar discover this halfway through, however, and continue Barrington's deception, Shriver is able to ask a whole series of questions that she would otherwise not have been able to explore, and this makes for much the most interesting section of the novel, as the early narrative drags slightly. Although the two cases are not identical - the SOB is not a self-narrative - Shriver does raise the theme of self-presentation, as eternal underdog Edgar muses on why he always seems to be second-best to an emulated hero, from his high school experiences as an overweight teenager to his attempts to compete with the popular Barrington in the present day. After finally meeting Barrington, who has run away from his own cult of personality in the fear that he might start to believe it, and become ridiculous, Edgar revises his conclusions. This mirrors the external political situation, as the SOB comes into true existence in Barba after claiming increasingly serious terrorist attacks as their own.

The moral of the story, Edgar believes, is 'Be careful what you make up', but the more daring his invention becomes, the more of a life of its own it takes on, moving from the subdued SOB of Barrington's day to an international threat, and in the process, becoming real. Shriver takes huge risks with her invented geopolitics in this satire, and perhaps doesn't pull all of them off, but it is the riskiness of her creation that gives it wings. Despite the superficial flashiness of McEwan's switchback, Sweet Tooth is not a novel that seems to have tried anything too daring, or provoked much thought; it's an enjoyable read, but little more, and perhaps it stays just a little too close to reality to take off as a fiction.

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