Ian McEwan is the U2 of literary fiction. Consider the similarities: Every new release is a global event, and just about everyone but the most contrary of contrarians can agree that those efforts excel in terms of technical skill. At the same time, just about everyone agrees that the best days for the artist in question are over, and that their new efforts lack a certain urgency when compared to their earlier work. But if you're in search of something solid that just about everybody can agree on, U2 and McEwan are names you can trust.
McEwan's new novel, Sweet Tooth, is a perfectly good Ian McEwan novel. The characters are interesting enough, the plot grabs your attention, and everything is, you know, good. Sweet Tooth's protagonist is a young woman named Serena Frome, a self-described "dutiful young woman, determined to achieve what was expected of me." Frome works for British spy agency MI5 as a low-level recruiter for operation Sweet Tooth. With the nation in the midst of the Cold War—the book is set in 1972—Sweet Tooth is a secretive attempt to fund writers whose work is sympathetic to capitalism, and to Great Britain and her allies.
Frome enlists a dupe of a novelist named Tom Haley under a transparent cover story involving a magical-sounding foundation that offers Haley whatever money he needs, for whatever purpose he wants. He can do journalism, write a novel, whatever—Haley is considered safe enough that whatever work he produces is expected to be supportive of the forces of conformity and anti-Communist aggression. Frome was selected for Sweet Tooth because she is more literary-minded than just about anybody else in the agency—she's disgustingly well-read for her age—but her main job is to keep Haley happy, while making sure he does not discover the government's benefactory role.
Of course Frome and Haley fall into an affair, and of course things get complicated. Sweet Tooth feels strangely bloated for a McEwan novel, with the first third of the book made up of Frome's prior relationships and pre-MI5 life, and the latter half occasionally shuddering to a stop so Frome can relay one of Haley's stories to us, complete with slyly self-aware criticism from McEwan:
In my opinion Tom Haley spent too long over this farewell chicken dinner, and it seemed especially drawn out on a second reading. It wasn't necessary to mention the vegetables, or to tell us that the wine was a Burgundy.
It's in this spy-thriller construction that McEwan finds most of his joy. Frome as a reader is not so much voracious as she is a brutish juggernaut, consuming whole novels in a matter of an hour or two and then tossing them aside without any sort of reflection or judgment. Haley spends much of his time in a pitiful state of unself-consciousness, even as his writing receives a surprising amount of critical acclaim once Frome enters his life. As the end of Sweet Tooth gets closer, the plot tightens and the reader's interest increases, finally whipping through the pages as unthinkingly, and uncritically, as Frome. It's a good, intriguing ending, and it's successful enough to make you forget Sweet Tooth's earlier slothful sins and set the book aside, satisfied that McEwan has done it again.
But that's not quite true. The "it" that McEwan has done isn't anywhere near as good as what McEwan has done in the past. The best thing about McEwan as a novelist used to be his ability to illustrate a perfectly rendered black-and-white tableau—settings and characters that are positively, realistically British in just about every way—and then insert something so bizarre that it upends that normalcy into a compelling new place: The hot-air-balloon accident in Enduring Love, the naughty word inserted into a proper Austenesque romance in Atonement. That explosive moment no longer exists—perhaps McEwan, as a rock god of literature, has decided that he's too Important for such cheap theatrics?—and his novels are poorer for it.
Luckily, Centerville, a new novel by American author Karen Osborn, has been published at just the right time to remind us that sometimes the out-of-the-ordinary is what fiction needs. Centerville takes an idyllic Midwestern town in 1967 and drops a bomb into it—a downtown drugstore explodes in the middle of the day, killing many and changing everyone. Osborn introduces us to the citizens of Centerville after the tragedy, once their lives have been atomized, and she wisely leaves us to imagine the peace that existed before. The characters—a young widow, a police officer, a reverend, a young girl who considered going into the drugstore moments before the explosion but walked away instead—are all introduced to us at the same time that they're forced by terrible circumstances to become different people. As a metaphor for the '60s in America, it's appropriate, and it doesn't feel heavy-handed. As a meditation on everyday violence, it's affecting. ("Sometimes one of them would have a weapon, but this guy didn't," a police officer recalls of his not-too-far-away time fighting the Vietcong. "He had these thin arms that felt like they could break under my hands.") As a novel, it's brief, startling, and successful. Osborn, it seems, is more McEwan than McEwan these days.