He had made another choice, too. He had chosen to cast himself as the victim, the wronged, the deceived, the rightly furious. He had convinced himself that he had said nothing to me about the laundry basket. That memory had been erased, and for a purpose. But now he didn’t even know that he’d erased it. He wasn’t even pretending. He actually believed in his disappointment. He really did think that I had done something devious and mean. He was protecting himself from the idea that he’d had a choice. Weak, self-deluding, pompous? All those, but, above all, a failure of reasoning. High table, monographs, government commissions — meaningless. His reasoning had deserted him. As I saw it, Professor Canning was suffering from a gross intellectual malfunction.
As the first chapter of McEwan’s forthcoming novel, Sweet Tooth, this is great: a smooth-reading setup of an interesting situation (a young woman recruited as a British spy), a nice introduction of the main character in a setting that shows characteristics that will no doubt become crucial in the novel.
As a short story, it doesn’t work at all. Unlike “Transatlantic,” last week’s story, which, with the exception of one thread that didn’t quite belong, worked quite well, with a beginning, middle, and satisfying end, this reads like a first chapter. There is a plot, and it does conclude, but the conclusion is clearly the beginning of something, and we are left hanging, waiting for Act II. The end of the affair is, in terms of plot, only a way to get the professor out of the way, so Serena can begin her spy career with some interesting baggage.
However, I have to admit I enjoyed the read. It’s available online, and it’s very straightforward, so I’ll be brief. Serena Frome is an English university student in 1972 who, following a failed romance with a man who turns out to find his soulmate in a (male) violinist elsewhere, has an affair with a married professor who preps her intellectually for spyhood. Lots of nice touches here. The portrait of Serena is of someone eager to please and “easily led.” There’s some discussion of England’s place in World History; the Book Bench interview follows this theme even more. It’s quite interesting.
There’s some interesting rumination on age, along with one of the two references to Serena’s current age, setting up the voice of memoir, of recollection via hindsight:
His poor naked foot looked like a worn-out old shoe. I saw folds of flesh in improbable places, even under his arms. How strange that, in my surprise, quickly suppressed, it didn’t occur to me that I was looking at my own future. I was twenty-one. What I had taken to be the norm — taut, smooth, supple — was the transient special case of youth. To me, the old were a separate species, like sparrows or foxes. And now what I would give to be fifty-four again!….Tony had a yellowish look, like an old paperback, one in which you could read of various misfortunes—knee and appendicitis operations, a dog bite, a rock-climbing accident, and a childhood disaster with a breakfast frying pan, which had left him bereft of a patch of pubic hair. There was a white four-inch scar to the right of his chest reaching toward his neck, whose history he would never explain. But if he was slightly . . . foxed, and resembled at times my old worn Teddy back home in the cathedral close, he was also a worldly, a gentlemanly lover.
But mostly it’s a romance. The above quote comes from the breakup scene: Serena’s lover accuses her of deliberately leaving a blouse in the laundry basket for his wife to find, when he actually told her to put it there. I’m guessing this capacity to erase memory – to not lie but change one’s perception of reality so that lying is not necessary – will come back in future chapters, either as she adopts the technique, or as she recognizes another man using it in a different situation, a more spy-specific situation.
As background and character exposition in the form of a romance, it’s quite well-done. But it’s not a short story. And maybe I should thank The New Yorker for teaching me to tell the difference; it’s something I’ve become more adept at, thanks to them.