In many ways, these novels are similar: both critique totalitarianism
and feature American foreign relations; both address issues of identity,
authenticity, and dissimulating; both speak candidly about the craft of
writing and relish telling stories within stories, and both tell tales
of love. Yet, the two books could not be more different.
bleak and disgusting, from the sewers to the torture chambers to the
work camps, abused animals and discarded orphans. An overwhelming sense
of death and defeat mark this text, despite the government’s daily
cheerful rereadings of its citizens’ misfortunes.
self-consciously literary, although not gracefully so, particularly in
the first part of the novel. Johnson, too, is trying to do hard work
here: critique totalitarianism in narrative form and undermine that form
by revealing that nothing is as it seems. Everything is a sham.
However, there are major problems with the novel. Part I, actually
reads as if it is tacked on to Part II—and was done so in a rush. Its
bizarre, melodramatic events depict the protagonist as part ingénue part
Part II, the real heart of the novel, refers to
these incidents only tangentially and builds its conclusion upon a
relationship established in Part I that is utterly absurd and
improbable. One could argue that this may be part of Johnson’s goal,
concerned as he is with what people are willing to believe and for how
long. But it is a lot to ask of a reader.
I was excited to read
this recent Pulitzer, but The conclusion features a major plot hole,
and the political critique (haven’t we already read our Marx, our Orwell
for that matter?) feels as if its at least half a decade late. I don’t
feel edified by the novel or charmed by the its craft, and I can’t think
of a single compelling reason to recommend it--to anybody.
After reading OMS, Sweet Tooth was a breath of fresh air.
The tone is light and entertaining and like OMS, there is a sense,
which the narrative here freely admits, that someone has “dream[ed] up a
scheme to please his masters. But no one knows what it’s for, what the
point is. No one even asks. It’s right out of Kafka.”
follow the plights of Serena Frume, a new recruit in MI5 enlisted to
participate in a secret operation called Sweet Tooth: she must convince
an unsuspecting academic that he has won a grant and will be free of
teaching commitments so that he can write. There’s no real sense what
“Sweet Tooth” hopes to achieve, except that it will compete with the
CIA’s sponsored literary journal. Largely, ST focuses on Ms. Frume’s
affair with her rather unappealingly-described academic, rather than
political espionage or intrigue. As their affair grows, tension builds:
will she compromise her identity or no?
At times, ST reads as
if it could be retitled, “Bridget Jones, Spy Girl.” Frume comes across
as naive and silly, because she so willingly complies with whatever MI5
asks, regardless of reason and without question. I have taught
undergrads in Cambridge: the cultural slang brought me right back and
McEwan’s got the young, newly graduated coed down. She is sweet and
well-meaning, educated, if a little clueless.
I find it rare
now that novelists write satisfying endings, but McEwan does so in an
epistolary form that changes one’s reading of the entire novel. Like OMS
what one initially assumes is not as it seems. It’s delightfully
Is it as literary as OMS? No. Is it as flawed as OMS?
No. Is it as politically motivated as OMS? No. Would I recommend it to a
friend? You bet.
Ok, fellow Buff-Opingtons and Pulitzer prize
judges, you now know that I too am not as I seem and cannot read modern
literature for the life of me: I pick _Sweet Tooth as the winner for
this semi-final round.