Sweet Tooth and Sag Harbor

I read two books over the last seven days, Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, and Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead. The former is a multiple Booker nominee, specialising in short, excruciatingly depressing books with grim endings – an Anglicised Haruki Marukami, perhaps. The latter I first encountered via Harper’s, and is the mindbogglingly verbose reason that I now know the definition of the word "deracinated", via his zombie novel, Zone One.

Sweet Tooth feels longer than many of McEwan’s novels, possibly because it’s more than the 200 pages of that gloomfest, Amsterdam, that was the last McEwan I read. It was marketed as an espionage novel, as if he’d decided to have a crack at the John Le Carre market, but although it involves MI5, it’s not a typical tale of spooks.

There’s a unreliable narrator, possibly more unreliable than we expect from the first part of the book. She is the eponymous Sweet Tooth, sent out on a propaganda exercise, and using words like "dilapidated" incorrectly. (I’m cursed that once I had the etymology and meaning of that word explained to me, I’m sensitive to its misuse. When people say something that is merely decrepit is delapidated, when there’s no chance of there being stones in it to be removed, I’m as jarred as if somebody talks about an army being decimated in an attack that doesn’t claim 10% of the soldiers as victims.)

Since the novel concerns spies, it’s hard to trust anyone, or not to suspect that McEwan will have some twist awaiting us. Will unsuspecting Mr Templeman, innocent headmaster in an early chapter, reappear as a Soviet agent, rising from deep cover? Does anyone who say they’ve left the Service really mean that they have? Is the whole thing a colossal trick?

Near the end, after Martin Amis has made a cameo appearance and we’ve been teased by threats of suicide, I began to feel the book was a hall of mirrors, nothing more than deceitfulness. If nothing in a novel is trustworthy, can a twist really provide shock or surprise? I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s not what I had expected, and I didn’t feel there were many clues in the earlier parts of the text that make it feel quite fair on the reader.

Still, a good few hours spent.

I recognised something of myself in Serena, Oxbridge educated mathematician and voracious reader. The protagonist of Sag Harbor, Benji, gawky teenager from a black American family, one might appear to have less in common with me. But we both have an obsession with Dungeons and Dragons, a middle class upbringing, we listen to roughly the same music, feel just as alienated and outside the world we inhabit.

There’s not a big twist to Sag Harbor, no earth shattering reveal in the final pages. Benji goes to his parents’ summer home in upstate New York for the summer, and as autumn comes, he leaves again. That’s about it.

Along the way, he has a slightly awful job in an ice cream shop, he gets frustrated with his friends who have cars, and he maps out ways to swear at people using compound obscenity, always a useful skill.

Oh, and he gets shot with a BB gun at one point, but things don’t turn out _too_ bad for him.

Well, what a surprise. Middle class kids get into minor scrapes, regardless of race and geography. Most of the books and TV programmes I’ve watched don’t have space for this narrative; black teenagers are all slinging crack rock on street corners and getting shot, not working at Jonni Waffle and listening to terrible middle of the road pop music. It’s strange that it’s so strange for me to read something that doesn’t fit into that, but perhaps that says more about the narrowness of my horizons ("what, people of African heritage are teenagers too?!") than anything else. Similar to near the end of Zone One, when the protagonist’s race is clarified, and again, I was left wondering why id assumed what I had up until then about him.

It’s rather episodic; it feels much like somebody took a lot of magazine pieces and stuck them together, but then Zone One was even more so, and I didn’t think that was a failing. Now, though, I’m presented with the problem of what to read on my long flights this weekend.

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