Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

More about Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth: not rushing into print

My most recent post in Talk about books is about two novels by Ian McEwan, one of them being 2012’s Sweet Tooth. I wrote that:

In the final chapter, McEwan introduces an extraordinary narrative trick that has the reader frantically searching back through Serena’s story, trying to work out which parts are reliable and which must be inventions or fabrications. I may write about that trick in a separate post on my personal site.

And here we are. The trick is that the novel, in the narrative voice throughout of a young woman recruited into MI5 after graduating from Cambridge, turns out to have been written entirely by the main male character in an imitation of her voice. Almost nothing in the story reflects the protagonist’s actual thoughts and feelings — though the account of what she did and what happened to her is largely accurate — it’s the “author”’s reconstruction. I say “almost nothing” because he makes her an offer at the end, one which she has evidently accepted. To avoid getting themselves and others into trouble with the law, they’ll have to delay publication until people have died and memories faded.

A few decades is time enough for you to correct my presumptions on your solitude, to tell me about the rest of your secret work and what really happened between you and Max, and time to insert those paddings of the backward glance: in those days, back then, these were the years of … Or how about, “Now that the mirror tells a different story, I can say it and get it out of the way. I really was pretty”. Too cruel? No need to worry. I’ll add nothing without your say-so. We won’t be rushing into print. (p. 370; emphasis and ellipsis original).

The book as published contains a different version of “what really happened” between Serena and Max from the one Max recounted to Tom, and it includes the passage about the mirror telling a different story, so we infer that it incorporates Serena’s corrections and “paddings”.

The paperback came out in 2013 and I must have bought it not long afterwards. As is often the way, I didn’t read it immediately. I had read a short extract in The Guardian describing Tom Haley — a description which read like McEwan’s unflattering self-portrait. I was keen to read the book but I had other things on my plate. When I eventually got around to Sweet Tooth, I read it with enjoyment but, as I reached the final chapter, a mounting sense of alarm. Oh no, I thought, I think I can see where he’s going with this.

I spent a large part of 2014 writing the first draft of my only attempt so far at a novel, A Falling Body. I was particularly pleased with the way it ends but as I finished Sweet Tooth, I concluded that I was going to have to change it, because otherwise people would think I’d stolen the ending straight from McEwan’s novel. My story, too, purported to be the first-person narrative of the female main character, which turned out to have been written “on her behalf” by one of the men in the story.

So I had used the same narrative device as McEwan had but I hardly need to add that I hadn’t used it with anything like McEwan’s subtlety or skill. Not only did the end of A Falling Body seem to be an imitation of McEwan, it looked like a bad, greatly inferior imitation. I needed to rewrite it, obviously. But how was I going to come up with another ending nearly as good as the one I was having to reject? I spent the first eight months of 2015 tinkering with the draft of A Falling Body and rewriting one chapter from scratch, but I never managed to find an alternative ending.

So, I left it as it was. I decided that it didn’t really matter if people thought I was stealing from McEwan. It was kind of truish anyway. Though I had hit on the ending of A Falling Body before reading Sweet Tooth, the ideas about gender that I’d like to think informed A Falling Body owed quite a bit to my reading of some of McEwan’s earlier fiction. So maybe it was fair enough if the borrowing seemed more direct than I had thought it was.

In the end, only about 15 people read A Falling Body all the way through. When I posted it on Medium in multiple parts, the first part got several hundred page views but readership dropped off precipitously. Of the small number of people who did finish it, nobody remarked on the resemblance of the ending to that of McEwan’s novel.

So, I suppose I got away with the apparent plagiarism. But, though I’m no longer particularly pleased with or proud of A Falling Body, I’d rather some more people had read it, even if they ended up calling me out on it.

Posted by Art on 30-Oct-2022.