When we visited the National Museum of Scotland in October, we ventured into the “rocks and minerals” wing, usually a favorite spot for my daughter. However, this time, it was my son who seemed to have a strong reaction to the amethyst geodes and orbicular granodiorite. A few feet away from him and my husband, I heard the latter gasp, “What did you say?” It turns out that my son had, rather loudly, announced the display they were looking at: Folded Schist. I’ll let you try to imagine what my husband thought his dear offspring had exclaimed in a museum.
Thankfully, that miscommunication was cleared quickly, but no one likes being in the dark, thinking that they’re following a conversation and narrative when all along something different is being conveyed. Even worse, no one wants to be the initiator of an exchange that doesn’t quite translate. I’ve learned that my “Ha, ha, I thought you said…” responses to someone with a thicker accent than I’m accustomed to are usually funny only to me. (Although I maintain that my mistaking a game my children were playing—Clash of Clans—for “Colossal Clowns” is a good one.)
Well, Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, is therefore an appropriate book to choose for a blog that examines the potential ways that a piece of fiction can inspire a reader—in big sweeps or little peeps—or provide color to what we accept as truisms. On March 24, The New Yorker’s “Page-Turner” column posted an interview with author Louise Erdrich, where she mentions that “Nothing I write ever has a moral. If it seems to a reader that there is one, that is unintentional. But is there a reason I wrote this story [“The Big Cat”]? Perhaps.” Oh.
What, then, is a reader looking for? There’s certainly a brand of fiction that paints a moralistically clear picture. Think John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, or many mystery reads. But Sweet Tooth delves into the world of MI5, the British equivalent of the CIA, and we’ve got a literary Homeland on our hands. Who’s right, what’s wrong, and what is the author really trying to relay here? This is not as simple as Nancy Drew would have us believe!
Serena Frome, recruited to MI5 via a former lover, is asked to get involved in Operation Sweet Tooth, an attempt to subtly propagate pro-Western and pro-capitalist messages via literature. Fitting for anyone who loves to read, our protagonist is a book lover as well. As she ages, her reading preferences transform from “I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them,” to “And I suppose I was, in my mindless way, looking for something, a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite old shoes…For it was my best self I wanted, not the girl hunched in the evenings in her junk-shop chair over a cracked-spine paperback, but a fast young woman pulling open the passenger door of a sports car…I craved a form of naïve realism.” And so after falling in love with the short stories of her “target,” a writer named Tom Haley, she slides into their own version of a plot and falls for him.
Soon, however, the fact that she knows Tom starts to inform her reading of his fiction. McEwan cleverly intersperses her narration of and take on a story’s plot with some phrases italicized, the italics presumably indicating the actual text of the work. Serena realizes this: Tom “was my project, my case, my mission. His art, my work and our affair were one. If he failed, I failed.” And soon thereafter, she comes to a more thorough understanding of how fiction can worm itself into a real, non-fictitious life: “…I thought I was beginning to grasp something about invention. As a reader, a speed-reader, I took it for granted, it was a process I never troubled myself with. You pulled a book from the shelf and there was an invented, peopled world, as obvious as the one you lived in. But now…I thought I had the measure of the artifice…”
Just as Serena’s understanding of what it means to “read” matures, I think there are two ways that we read a work of fiction. When I was five, after I saw a Broadway touring show of Annie, I thought living in an orphanage with all my best friends and an evil matron who we would overpower with our acrobatics and mischievous ways would be a fantastic way to live. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) This is what I consider the “escapism” part of reading (or in this case, watching a show). We know it’s not realistic—although that notion didn’t stop me from trying to give myself an Annie perm with my mom’s curling iron—but it’s fun. I don’t think the author’s intent is necessarily hidden in this case: No folded schist here!
But what about the massive amount of complex literature out there? Many books are trickier and stickier. On this blog’s “about” page, I include a quote from Julian Barnes which essentially intimates that writers get to share their own precise version of the world. Reading a book like this is not about slotting ourselves in to some madcap adventure that will never come to fruition; it’s picking and choosing the best versions of a character or a plot and layering them on top of every other philosophy we maintain. How do authors feel when a seemingly crystal-clear message gets garbled? Or are authors more like Louise Erdrich, forfeiting distinct messages for ambiguity?
With these types of books, we attach great meaning to characters and their motives and perhaps think, “What would I do in that situation?” or “What are the moral implications of the way this plot is unfolding?” Of course, no writer can examine every permutation of a situation, so we’re left to our own devices. Is it somehow wrong that a book speaks to us so emphatically that we attach great meaning to it?
One of Sweet Tooth’s take-aways (I mean, for me. Mr. McEwan, do you care to comment?) is how easily fiction and fantasy can become intertwined or confused with hard facts, resulting in some twisted, ethereal reality. Perhaps this thought makes you want to throw away all your Margaret Atwood novels and go back to Mitford. But by the end of Sweet Tooth, all I kept thinking is that we are, in fact, our own walking texts that are being read and interpreted daily. Perhaps Marshall McLuhan, granddaddy of contemporary media theory, would agree: The medium is the message, after all. What do we want to attempt to convey, knowing that not everyone’s going to get it right?
Folded schist, that’s pretty profound.