I’m struggling not to give away the ending of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, because its literary trickery irritated me in the same way the end of Atonement annoyed some. But then McEwan is a leading figure amongst that cohort of writers who have successfully turned the trick of creating a genre from literary novels. Before writers like McEwan, literary novels were an aspirational thing and it was always pretentious to set out to write one. A literary novel was one held over its peers, a genuine novel not a derivative genre piece; something expected to endure.
Of course there’s nothing wrong in aspiring to write a great literary novel (nor in happily churning out crime thrillers, police procedurals, romances or whatever). But now the literary novel has itself become a genre that we can dissect, its key characteristics being a plot that’s given way to characterisation, a tendency to digress and aspiration toward realism and contemporary historical setting. We have that with Sweet Tooth, but we also the emergence of formula.
But having said all that, Sweet Tooth is still well worth a read. The subject matter is engaging and demands exploration: big brother trying to shape the arts, the soft cold war and a shift from an enemy held at bay by the threat of mutual nuclear destruction and precariously balanced power to an enemy fully engaged in terrorism. Perhaps Sweet Tooth’s story would have been better told as straight thriller rather than tricksy literature.