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The Illusive World of Ian McEwan
In his recent novel, Sweet Tooth (2012), British author Ian McEwan plays timeless illusionist games with the reader—in the manner of his earlier novel, Atonement (2001). Both works feature scandals; these emerge near the beginning of Atonement and near the close of Sweet Tooth. More importantly the gamesmanship in both cases can be traced in large part to the creation of a character that is very belatedly identified as having written all or part of the novel in which that character also appears.
This tactic and its many variations are generally referred to as “meta-art,” but I prefer to use the terms “reflexive art” or “reflexivity.” Reflexive art indicates, blatantly or subtly, awareness of its own artiness and, in doing so, it invariably establishes contrasts between what is real and what is art, between art and life. Further, reflexivity permits readers to perceive an illusion, a peek-a-boo opportunity to experience material as both real one moment and as unreal art the next—and potentially the chance to participate in the illusion of a continuing dance between these binary opposites.
In offering the possibility of perceiving a back-and-forth relationship between art and life, reflexivity opens the door to radically alternative interpretations of the material at hand. In both of his novels, McEwan introduces his reflexive material near the very end of the narratives, and these reflexive elements combine with major narratorial surprises to transform potentially everything that has preceded them. In their trick endings, Atonement switches from third person narration to first person while Sweet Tooth switches from one first person narrator to another.
In my opinion reflexivity in all its guises is a subset of what in the visual arts is sometimes known as “figure/ground designs” or “bistable art,” but which, in literature and the other arts, I prefer to call “multistable art” or “multistability.” Such art is radically dualistic. In literature it can be found in virtually any lengthy section of Don Quixote, and, perhaps, the best known instance of multistability in the visual arts is this design that is both a rabbit and a duck:
Atonement has four parts, and again, all but the last is written in the third person. In the fourth, the narrative shifts nearly 60 years ahead to 1999 and to the first person voice of the dying elderly writer Brionny Tallis. In the novel’s first section, Briony in her youth had, with mixed motives and an inflamed imagination, mistakenly accused Robbie Turner, her sister Cecilia’s lover, of raping a visiting girl under cover of darkness.
In the succeeding section Cecilia breaks off with her family after Robbie is jailed for more than two years. He is released to fight in World War II, and the second section ends with him at Dunkirk awaiting evacuation. In the third section he and Cecilia reunite. They rebuff Brionny’s struggle to make amends. The real rapist marries his victim but remains free and is never publically accused.
However, near the conclusion of the fourth and final section of the novel, Brionny reveals that she has spent her life creating innumerable drafts of the true story but that she has written Atonement’s third section with a false, semi-happy ending (and there is reason to suppose that she has narrated the entire novel, given the all-of-a-piece quality of the text). She explains that the lovers never reunited, that the real Robbie died of septicemia at Dunkirk and Cecilia shortly after in the bombing of London. And Brionny had never contacted either of them. The rapist’s marriage was real, according to Brionny, and he and his wife flourished—rich, powerful, and litigious, thereby supposedly preventing Brionny from publishing as an act of atonement her completely true draft of what happened. Thus Brionny in life never exposes the rapist.
As the novel concludes, Brionny also unleashes a fierce round of rationalizations including mini-polemics about morality, mortality and oblivion, about the imagination and art subsuming the vagaries of truth and lies, and about the relative superiority of a fake happy ending rather than bleak reality. Thus she claims to deliver the former as her atoning memorial to the dead lovers.
Ultimately, there is not much anywhere in the novel that reveals truthful (or admirable) qualities in Brionny, and her final emotional flurry of sophistry in Part Four does not seem reliable either. However, it is possible to take Atonement straight, that is, to treat all its contradictions as reliably narrated, however belatedly the lies are exposed and however much the reflexivity is ignored. Or Parts One and Two can be regarded as reliable narration while Part Three is clearly shady and Part Four is also up for grabs. Finally, since there is no sound reason to rely on Brionny’s account of events, it is also possible to assume that she is an unreliable narrator in Parts One and Two as well as having produced the slippery Three and Four, thus rendering the whole shebang unreliable.
All of this means that, given Brionny’s reflexive role and questionable reliability, the reader’s multistable opportunities are plentiful:
In Sweet Tooth, rather than relying on narratorial unreliability to foster multistable multiplicity, McEwan pulls a wholly surprising narrator out of his magician’s hat at the last minute. But there are at least a few hidden clues about what is ahead before the multistable narratorial flip-flop.
Among the hidden clues in this second work there is a vital but extremely brief mention, some two-thirds of the way through the narrative, of a multistable visual image that, in retrospect, effectively underscores a controlling design in the entire novel. This major clue emerges as fiction writer and scholar, T. H. “Tom” Haley has been trying to sort his way through a counterintuitive mathematical puzzle posed to him as the possible basis for a short story by his lover, Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume”). After struggling with Serena’s puzzle, Tom has an aperçu that leads him to believe he has finally grasped the relationship between what seems an obvious way to solve the problem and Serena’s very different solution via the laws of mathematical probability. With a little identifying help from Serena Tom likens the math problem to a Necker cube. A Necker cube design will ultimately emerge as the narratorial crux of Sweet Tooth.
Along with its never-obvious clues, the novel is rife with secrets and betrayals—and rightly so in that it is about the ineffectual, if not corrupt world of spies and spying in Britain’s gray, glum 1970s. Serena, unknown to Tom, is a member of the domestic intelligence force, MI5. She has been assigned to oversee Tom’s unwitting participation as part of a secret MI5-subsidized foray into the world of arts and letters, a project code named “Sweet Tooth.” Serena’s sexual involvement with Tom, by the way, is no part of her mandate and is a definite breach of professionalism.
In keeping with the novel’s duplicitous world Serena has been spied upon for a while by her employer. Indeed, she had been hired because her now-dead elderly lover was a suspected MI5 mole, and the agency wanted to keep an eye on her as another possible enemy.
Ostensibly, the novel is Serena’s first person history of her outer and inner life from childhood through a scandal in the spring of 1974. At that point the press exposes what MI5 has been up to, and, worse, there is the later journalistic revelation that Tom, secretly subsidized by the state and having just won a prestigious literary prize, has taken Serena, a beautiful MI5 spy, as a lover.
The riot of headlines, seemingly career crushers to Serena and Tom and to their affair, leads to a very different outcome. At her lowest point, when she has gone to Tom’s flat to collect her belongings and flee, Serena finds Tom’s long letter and his heretofore carefully guarded manuscript waiting for her (he, meanwhile, has skipped to Paris until the media excitement dies down).
Tom’s first person letter to Serena (covering the last 18 pages of the novel) reveals that on Christmas Eve, 1973, he had been tracked down by Max Greatorex, one of Serena’s superiors at MI5 who is in love with her. Hoping to break up her relationship with Tom, Max betrays both her role and that of MI5 which, through dummy foundations, has been secretly funneling taxpayer monies to writers and scholars who are unaware of the true source of their grants and who had been selected because their unhindered outpourings might contribute to the cultural side of the Cold War. In point of fact, MI5 had begun this low level operation to compete in bureaucratic aggrandizement with its sister service, MI6, the international intelligence group. Also, Sweet Tooth is an act of parrotry: the CIA had pioneered such operations (only to be exposed in the press several years before, and MI5 might well have anticipated a similar embarrassment).
Tom’s letter explains that he was initially furious and determined to break with Serena (still keeping her spy role hidden for fear of losing him), but Max’s revelations have unintended consequences. Tom had decided not only to play along with the game and continue on with Serena as if he were still clueless but also to break out of his current writer’s block by fictionalizing Serena’s entire life story in the guise of her first person voice. He churns out 100,000 words in three months while never letting Serena know the basis of his sudden great inspiration. Indeed, Tom plays the game to its bitter end: Max Greatorex, furious that he hasn’t crushed the affair, betrays Sweet Tooth to the press, precipitating the national scandal. Tom continues to pretend that he is unaware of Serena’s role until Max ups the ante with a press leak about their affair. This final blow actually suits Tom because his “Serena” novel will have a satisfying, if negative final arc.
In hardback, Sweet Tooth is 301 pages long, and, in the last 50-or-so of its first person narrative pages, Tom is reflexively both a major character in a novel while choreographing that novel in the act of narratorial impersonation of the other major character. Tom, the ventriloquist disguised as Serena, dispenses clues that his character is openly and clandestinely interviewing her family and friends—Serena, the spy, is being spied upon once more. Thus, in these last pages, and prior to Tom’s separate letter, the reflexive situation is akin to that M. C. Escher picture of hands drawing themselves.
The few clues that reflexivity might be in the works are backhanded. Serena a lifelong omnivorous reader of fiction (but who had been forced by her mother to major in math at Cambridge) claims early in the novel that she dislikes “tricksy” multistable fiction by such writers as Borges, Pynchon and Barth, and some hundred pages later, in a discussion of the multistable writer John Fowles, she reminds Haley that she doesn’t like tricks, to which he replies that “it wasn’t possible to create life on the page without tricks.”
Catching her first sight of Tom, Serena fleetingly perceives a “transsexual” possibility in him and in those of his short stories that she has read. And, at the end in his letter to Serena, Tom identifies his impersonation as both ventriloquism and transvestialism.
Another sign that beneath its seamless surface Sweet Tooth may be tricksy is the presence of real people and other forays into the real in its pages. Tom is the winner of the Jane Austen Prize, an actual award. Writer Martin Amis precedes Haley to a podium to do a reading, and writer Ian Hamilton, unlike Amis, is a character with a speaking part.
The ultimate decision for the reader is whether to immerse himself or herself in the grand design of the novel:
Such an immersion involves a multistable back-and-forth between reading a novel by Tom or reading a novel by Serena: the former is artsy, the latter relatively artless.
Again, the novel is virtually seamless, so reading it as if were truly written by Serena Frome is an easy immersion. She emerges as a decent, fun loving, sexually avid young woman in her early twenties, and her charm remains intact in the frequent displays of her inner life as well as in the accounts of her family history, her university years, her romantic history, and her short career at MI5. Indeed, in the process of his research and his impersonation, Tom confesses in his letter that he has fallen back in love with Serena. He proposes marriage, adding that Serena had confided in him her old-fashioned view that novels should end at the altar.
On the artsy side, reading the novel as if it narrated by Tom, adds layers of complexity. Tom’s short stories, for instance, summarized and interpolated by Serena, are revealed in retrospect, to be like variations on a symphonic theme, to have a structural bearing on the overall novel. In one story a character receives an unexpected financial windfall (like Tom) and spends some of it buying and making love to a store mannequin (a fake like Serena). And the short story Tom derives from Serena’s math puzzle has both a simple and a complex solution—like perceiving a Necker cube as both a simple singularity and a complex radical duality.
A final multistable puzzle awaits the reader — it lurks innocently and, perhaps, unnoticed in the novel’s opening lines and in its last two pages. In the first page, Serena writes, “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, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.” So she’s writing in approximately 2012, the year Sweet Tooth was published. It’s not clear from this beginning that the ending was happy or that the two were married, and the narrative immediately jumps to Serena’s childhood and continues onward with her chronology.
In the last two pages of Sweet Tooth, Tom, wrapping up his confession and marriage proposal, notes that his manuscript can’t be published until the twenty-first century when it would be “clear of the Official Secrets Act” because otherwise folks would go to jail. He gives Serena permission to take (and even to burn) the only copy of the manuscript, but he hopes that Serena will collaborate with him to produce a more thorough account of her inner and outer life.
Thus the alternatives have expanded:
- It remains possible to read Sweet Tooth as either a novel by Serena or a novel by Tom.
- But it’s roughly 2012: Serena may not have forgiven Tom for his counter-spying and appropriation of her life and may have taken the manuscript and been apart from Tom for about 38 years, at which point she’s decided, for whatever reason, to deliver to readers his manuscript and letter — untouched except for the brief opening paragraph.
- Or Serena, still alone, or at least separated from Tom for years, may have gussied up his manuscript to reflect her novelized life and feelings more accurately.
- Or Serena and Tom have been together for 38 years and have collaborated over that time to produce a more complete novelized version of Serena’s history and thought.
- Or Serena and Tom may have been together all these years but have decided to simply publish Tom’s original manuscript, his letter, and the work’s brief opening paragraph that dates its time of publication.
- In all of its possible formats, Tom’s manuscript remains a faction, a blending of fact and fiction (Tom’s “Serena” is a renewed explosion of his creative juices, not simply an attempt at biography), and, as a faction, the work will remain ambiguous.
A final note: it is possible to carp about the illusion ex machina, the last-minute inversions and flip-flops in both of these novels. But without them there would be no multistability, and some of us, unlike Serena, are fond of this sort of thing.
- Images: Photo of Ian McEwan by Eamon McCabe - all other images provided by author.