In the novel, McEwan imagines how a politically motivated artistic endowment might influence an inexperienced young writer in London’s literary world in the 1970s. The book’s eponymous scheme—the Sweet Tooth project—is devised by the MI5, the United Kingdom’s internal counter-intelligence and security agency, with the intent to sully the ideal of communism and bolster that of western capitalist systems. Sweet Tooth aims to support a handful of leftist writers in England who have grave reservations about the Soviet system, encouraging critiques of the authoritarian state, which, the agency hopes, will influence leftist audiences to doubt or abandon the communist alternative. To win the cold war, the MI5 sets out to win the minds and hearts of intellectuals and artists.
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The agent responsible for running the Sweet Tooth scheme is Serena Frome, a twenty-something working for the MI5, and the book’s narrator. Coming from a pious family (her father is an Anglican bishop) among whose members she feels bored and oppressed, Serena has long looked for independence, and much of her drive toward “freedom” takes the form of sexual exploration. Blond, beautiful, romantic and an intellectual, Serena pursues flings with fellow students at Cambridge, as well as a professor, Tony Canning, with whom she falls in love. But Serena is not quite free. McEwan describes the order an evening must take when Serena and Tony are together: first there is dinner, then reading, then a glass of wine, then love-making, then talking. The professor makes clear that it will be no other way.
Tony has high-level connections to the intelligence community, and, being well aware of Serena’s scholarly acumen, he prepares her for a career at MI5. But, fitting with the times, the position offered Serena turns out to be something akin to a secretaryship, instead of agent. She walks the streets of London trying to decide whether she should take the job or go back to her family home and her bishop father. But going back would erase the independence she found at Cambridge.
Enter Thomas (Tom) Haley, a new figure in London’s literary world, on whom MI5 agents have set their ideological hopes. Tom works as a teaching assistant at the University of Sussex (from which McEwan himself graduated). Desperate for recognition and success, he is a categorical specimen: The Promising Young Writer. He already has a number of short stories published in esteemed magazines, and in reading his work, Serena becomes convinced that he is an ideal candidate for Sweet Tooth. He’s offered her supervision and a monthly stipend from Freedom International, a fictitious organization set up by MI5. Quickly, we learn the two share interests in art, the poems of Larkin, and each other. The sex is boring, but this doesn’t stop them from falling in love. Importantly, they find themselves enjoying Tom’s stipend together: it’s so generous that they can dine like royals in London’s most luxurious restaurants, feeding on oysters and champagne.
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But if the reader is ignorant of London’s literary world during the 1970s, the privileged view McEwan presents can be fascinating. Personally, I enjoyed the inside glimpse: Tom’s meetings with Ian Hamilton, the editor of New Review, who publishes his work (“not bad” he says); as well as those with the young Martin Amis, who has just finished his first novel, The Rachel Papers. We are provided with a first-person account of the offices of Tom Maschler—legendary head of Jonathan Cape—Hamilton’s drinking habits, and Amis’s self-confidence as a young author.
While Tom is enjoying its benefits, the Sweet Tooth project doesn’t seem to lessen his artistic independence. Apart from Serena, MI5 people show little interest in his fiction and don’t have a hand in his work’s critical reception. They have no say in the choices of editors, and no payments are made to literary award juries.
Instead, in practice, the program merely funds Tom’s work—Tom positions himself as a radical writer, while Sweet Tooth spares him from the financial hardships experienced by many avant-garde artists. So here it is: the universal wish is magically granted. It’s a strange pleasure—especially for the writers among us—to watch his surface independence: if only we were all so lucky. Unlike Serena, who is happy to play the game by its rules (she is pleased to perform her assigned duties), Tom wants to both be accepted and be a radical. Sweet Tooth suggests this may be impossible, but one wonders what this means for McEwan himself.
Although Tom doesn’t learn about the identity of his financiers until much later in the novel, he seems willfully ignorant about the program in exchange for the easy freedom it provides. Initially hesitant about the funding (he listens to Serena’s offer with “the expression of a man listening to an extended joke”)—it seems too good to be true—Tom puts his suspicions to rest once he is sufficiently praised for his work (“utterly brilliant,” Serena opines), and he ends his inquiries into the source of the money. He is so enamored by the idea that his talent has won him the award that even when he learns Serena has strangely lied about her University years he easily forgives her and doesn’t push the matter further. But the cost of willful ignorance is high. The project is eventually revealed in full, publicly, and the stigma of a state-sponsored artist amounts to a death warrant for the kind of radical writer Tom aspires to be. Each of his works ends up bearing Sweet Tooth’s indelible blot.
McEwan’s novel paints a tragic picture for writers. One has to depend on the literary market, on academia, on the wealthy, or, perhaps, on unsavory schemes like that of the MI5. Upon finishing the novel I remembered a famous maxim of John Ruskin: “The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it.” What Tom becomes is no reward. Easy, sweet money punishes in the end.
This essay was published in Guernica on November 28, 2012.