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SWEET TOOTH

Sweet Tooth - Ian McEwan Merry Christmas, Goodreads. With holiday carols filling the aisles of shops around the globe, I thought I would attempt that difficult but not quite impossible task of "maxing out" the Goodreads review--that is, reaching the character limit on a book review, and making, scout's honor, at most 10% bloggish commentary about the reviewer's current circumstances. Given this set of parameters, it would only seem the practical way of limiting the review's content to 10% blog-style notes is to begin with them, so there goes the first paragraph.

The bloggishness goes something like this. Japan itself is a country for narcissists because it, upon having a few encounters with the outside world in the 16th century, decided "the problem with foreigners is that they exist." Correspondingly, it secluded itself on pain of death (death penalty to all landing foreigners; death penalty to any Japanese who dared leave and then return) in the year 1600 and remained behind closed ramparts until, famously, the 1840s arrival of Admiral Peary, United States Navy, with all the scholastic commentary on that clash of civilizations that followed. To that degree, if you are a reviewer, you are also a writer of sorts, and if you are a writer, you are composing in your head at times, you are seeing events at a remove, you are mentally comparing things you have read to the stimuli reaching your consciousness through the senses. Combine the authorial/reviewer temperament with "being in Japan," and reviewer therefore deserves some leeway for all this obsessive documenting of circumstances. Or maybe not. But who else to capture the rose color of the skies on an early winter afternoon, the frivolous swish of a maid-costume-wearing twenty year old, or the way sunbeams glitter off a unpolluted stream? I don't know. I can't invent excuses for things as they may be.

If this isn't enough justification for an entry point to a review, there is other matter of Ian McEwan circumstances. Imagine: 2007. You're in New York after a first stint in Japan. Many university classmates are still around the city, enlivening things with information about where to go and who to be. The sunlight glitters softly through Central Park trees, and buses are paneled on the side with ATONEMENT advertisements. On the Internets, quick video shows glittering soft-focus imagery of 1920s England, the Brideshead Revisited thing, the Anthony Powell thing, the Lost World thing. This was civilization, is the unstated message; what we have now is the residual aftermath. Yes, say the rotund matrons of the Upper East Side; yes, proclaim even the bespectacled intellectuals of Morningside Heights. For once, a few brief hours in a darkened cinema, we will relive England in her glory.

It worked for a lot of people. I bought into the advertising campaign too much, and felt the story let me down. The novel may have been icing on that cake. The review / opinion still stands today; my take is that Atonement promised much (although perhaps it was mostly the Hollywood hype); the McEwan "twist" in this case was a cruel stab. More generally, I felt the plot's failure to deliver was that it failed to enter the minds of the 20s-decade aristocracy. Powell could do, and so could Waugh. Even Oscar Wilde seems to be offering a sort of entree. Isn't McEwan cheating?

Based on this disappointment, I did not pick up another McEwan for a couple of years, and this was On Chesil Beach, which I similarly thought on an initial run through was "aching to break through," but failed. My judgment on Ian McEwan: an author of the "storm in the teacup." He could not move mountains and continents in the way even of Nabokov's short fiction could; he came short even of Ishiguro in his scope, sweep, grandeur, and ambition of his work.

Enter Goodreads. Based on statistical feedback from the entries I picked up Saturday, and then reread Chesil Beach. I found Enduring Love, and the Innocent. Executive summary: Atonement (3/5 based reaction to the quarter-million audience and raves, actually a 4/5 technical achievement), Saturday (3/5 solid, disappointing, all about Dr. Perfect), but then Enduring Love (4/5 pushing the 5) and Innocent (4/5 high). Finally McEwan has gotten some traction. The thing is falling together.

Since I downplayed Atonement for reaction reasons, I have to push this 4.6 work up to the 5 even. The motivation is to balance out the five novels, 3.8 being a fairer number of the output looked at thus far, and perhaps capturing some of the feeling of wanting to see the rest of the catalogue. Finally, before proceeding the analysis / reviewing of the book content, there's the issue of McEwan entering his sixties. We may not have him for decades to come! Let's build the excitement around his work while he can still appreciate all the online accolades.

SWEET TOOTH

as Multiple online reviews have already noted, Sweet Tooth is about a young female recruited into MI-5, Britain's internal security service, and invited to participate in the least violent, most cultural activity. Since I am not a newspaper reviewer, I will go one step further in discretion and keep out details from this entry, although any google search on the Independent or the Boston Globe will provide details about the first quarter of the book.

The real skill, of course, is to talk about things in all generalities. Well, first of all, one more digression, how did we get here, 2012, Ian McEwan knowing he is starting to reach the danger point at which hearts suddenly stop or falls end a career. We have:

Atonement: the huge, huge crowd pleasier, estimated 1.5 million copies sold worldwide, a brilliant and warm evocation of 1920s England and a huge literary trick that showed the vitality of the modern novel to confound and disorientate. also, however, a trick in a way, a storm in a teacup, and less daring in scope than Waugh or Oscar Wilde.

Chesil Beach: a work for a certain subset. Two newlyweds on their honeymoon on the shingle in the south of England. MCEwan argues for a certain traditional way of viewing things, in contrast to 60s values. A celebrataion, in a way, of a lost type. Underyling ethos conservative.

Saturday: true celebration, true glorification of upper-middle class professional London counterposed against the twin suggested destructive forces of terror and crime. A reminder that liberal social values can also just meet medical diagnosis. Celebratory about Dr. Perfect, and one kind of London smart set.

The Innocent: early MCEwan, not very read. Moment by moment dissection of an extremely, extremely innocent young man who gets inexorably caught up in love and espionage. Berlin during the Cold War, and a riff on an actual event involving the Cambridge Five (Soviet moles in SIS).

Enduring Love: acid dissection (in my reading) of "hard" theism versus tolerant, non-evangelical secularism or progressive theism. Dr. M, physicist and #1 reviewer on UK Goodreads, disagrees, but in any case, we can agree this work is an endorsement of rationality and modernism vs. aggressive radical and external forces.

Well, so here we go. Amazing in a way that a writer, somebody in any case part of a tiny, not hugely loved minority, endorses the Establishment, but therein, perhaps, lies a clue to this work, wherein McEwan clearly hints that aspects of the work apply to him. Was a writer in the book given the (fictional) "Jane Austen Prize for Fiction?" Well, McEwan, it seems, won the Somerset Maugham Award early in his career--and Maugham, of course, after writing the first blockbuster thriller in history (and becoming rich), spent his later life in service abroad in China. So, wink-wink, McEwan is hinting--wink-wink--that he has in fact accepted mild forms of government support for his work, and so we have a clue to understanding the McEwan enigma. McEwan is--at least partly--at one with his government's values, and if he doesn't absolutely declare that he has received discreet support, well at least we can understand that doors are open to him, and he is welcome at many a table. But then, of course, doors were open for Doris Lessing, and she was also welcome, and she was at least for periods of her life a declared Communist. Wah, what a complex world.

This interplay of authors life and novel's plot is just one part of this book. The work also exists as a demonstration of literary craft and twist; it evokes internal universes (in one of the quoted passages, the heroine describes her feelings at being present at a counter-culture event while salaried for MI5); it explores ironies of both leftist cannabis smokers and right-leaning writers being on government dole. But aside from all these issues, Sweet Tooth is about a certain type of girl--easily led by her parents to study what isn't her desired subject, but of sound mind and definite opinion. Conversation about literature serves as both vehicle for discussion and dissection of the postwar novel (McEwan isn't personally criticizing certain word-game players and authorial-present authors, but his sympathies resound because of course his own work is consistent with one of the viewpoints), and the philosophy of art as present does correlate with certain passages elsewhere in McEwan's writing. His work speaks for itself, and is itself commenting on itself, and the difference between the two is precisely part of the thrill.

I would hold, so to speak, that this presentation of the novel so far is doing a fair job of presenting what the crux of the book is without actually revealing the slightest of spoiler details. But of course this interpretation fails to cover, for example, the 70% of the book that isn't, per se, about McEwan. we have certain value points here for why this book deserves the 5, even if it's preacknowledged to be a 5 that's counterweighing the 3 I currently (and will for the future maintain) for ATONEMENT.

> value proposition 1: SWEET TOOTH provides the equivalent of 30 pages or so of literary analysis as vehicled through the narrator, a Bishop's daughter, who becomes increasingly drawn to literature as her Maths proves less than Cambridge Tripos quality. then, in a later section, the narrator meets the McEwan avatar, and another literary school of thought develops. all in all, most of 20th cent. college lit and pomo lit is critiqued.

> value proposition 2: the Anglophile Angle. as with the rest of McEwan, what you're buying is a few hours' vacation in the UK without the inconvenience of air travel or the expense. McEwan is far and away, the most local and globalized writer of upper-mid UK; hence, "we motor along the M40 until reaching Telford, whereupon turning off onto a dirt track we find Colonel Kiers' cottage, and leave the car to find the Colonel with his Springfield, hailing us from some thirty metres..."-- you know, there is at least some segment which is buying McEwan for this sort of thing, as well as entree into a not entirely open society

> value prop 3: McEwan's own take on life and the world is only further developed and revealed in this work; together especially with ENDURING LOVE, but also with CHESIL BEACH and the INNOCENT, we develop a word-picture of values and secularism.

now, as it happens, mobile Goodreads does not list a character limit, (ipad IOS). therefore, my little project is nipped in the bud. i know I'm far short of the actual review size limit, but unless I have a real idea, I can't spaz out in writing if there's a risk thwo thirds of if it will disappear. I guess I will say, these are the key points:

STRUCTURE a McEwan strong point, book can 't be read just once, as with his other works

"This is England," McEwan both expressing and of his own nature demonstrating English values. anglo-saxon secularity implied to be the last hope of man

possible interfaces: some fo this is drawn from open source sources, and McEwan has had the plagiarism charge leveled at him. he devotes a chapter to the Monty Hall problem. he ties together various things (see above-- regarding structure and teacup) but his best moments are when you're not sure what is actually autobiography, what is extremely skillful mind reading of a different gender narrator/person; and what is pure fabrication. the work is realistic/naturalistic and believable, and yet, and yet, it remains part of the "tea cup" problem. isn't McEwan completely missing the most interesting story of all, why the British security forces (and the US, as well), constantly end up on the same side of global politics as al-Qaeda? don't you turn on the news every saturday and learn that, in the most central of ironies, al Q and the US counter terrorist forces ARE BOTH IN AGREEMENT that Qaddafi, Hussein, and Assad should all have been or should be overthrown? why doesn't McEwan explore this strange coincidence / undeclared alliance / whatever it is? what is going on? why is this universe so random?