The Mag This Week

So the boss — editor-in-chief Aditya Sinha — and I didn’t entirely agree about Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan and thus, this week’s books page, has some genteel fisticuffing, with both of us making our points. My review is here and you really should see the opposing counsel’s point. It’s particularly fun because we refer to similar things (le Carré, A Child in Time) only to put across very different opinions. Good fun.

I’ve also reviewed Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People. It’s a wonderful little story and never mind Unni Chacko, I want to start a cheerleading gang for Thoma. He’s just adorable.

Also, Sharanya Manivannan reviewed a new translation of selected poems by Subramania Bharati and she was not impressed.

My two reviews (in their unsnipped avatars) are below.

I Spy a Happy Ending: Sweet Tooth

The cover of Sweet Tooth raises many questions. Who is the woman? Who is the man? Is he following her or looking out for her? Is she fleeing him? Has she stolen that file? The sense of intrigue is heightened by the blurb, which suggests Ian McEwan’s new novel is about espionage and a cultural cold war. Faced with all this, you’d be forgiven if you expect a variation of George Smiley in a red dress when you start Sweet Tooth. However, for all those expecting McEwan’s take on the seventies’ Britain and a spook-ridden MI5, Sweet Tooth  isn’t really about spying and the biggest red herring in the novel might be that cover.

Serena Frome, empowered by the confidence of being a beautiful woman and an education from the University of Cambridge, has a mundane job in the MI5. She has just come out of a disastrous affair with a married man and is infatuated with a colleague when she’s co-opted into an operation titled Sweet Tooth. Her task is to tap a promising young author named Tom Haley so that he writes fiction that attacks Soviet ideology. Serena reads Tom’s stories and promptly falls in love with him. He thinks she works for a foundation that has awarded him a stipend to write his novel and is more than willing to splurge the money he’s getting to romance Serena with luxuries like oysters and champagne. Eventually and inevitably, Tom finds out he’s been had and it’s after this that the real twist in the tale is revealed. So as to not be spoilerific, let’s just say that while Serena is the protagonist, the star of Sweet Tooth is actually Tom.

McEwan has clarified that he was too much of a “Bolshie” to be approached by the Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but aside from that detail, Tom is McEwan. Both are alumni of the University of Sussex, both are befriended by Martin Amis. More importantly, Tom’s stories are taken from McEwan’s early short fiction and the plot of Tom’s novel is the same as McEwan’s abandoned first novel. No wonder the author said in an interview that Sweet Tooth is “a mutated version of a memoir”.

It’s a curious coincidence that McEwan in Sweet Tooth and Salman Rushdie in Joseph Anton have chosen to write themselves in third person. It’s as though they wanted to turn nostalgia into an out-of-body experience; as though that would make the past an easier story to tell. McEwan’s focus is upon the writer honing his craft, rather than the realistic details of his youth and so, he constructs a mirror image of sorts and this Lacanian writerly ego is Tom. We only get précis versions of Tom’s stories when Serena reads them and it’s effectively like buying a good novel and getting a volume of excellent short stories for free. While McEwan plays a languid cat’s cradle with the different strands in Sweet Tooth, Haley’s fiction is sharp, cutting and evocative.

Usually McEwan’s novels have a skilful layering of politics and plot. For example, despite not ever uttering the name “Thatcher”, A Child In Time  contained subtle but unmistakable criticism of Thatcherism and its policies. In contrast, the only function of contemporary politics in Sweet Tooth is to create a laboratory for Serena’s heartbreaks. A few of the characters, like Tony Canning and Max Greatorex, suggest the possibility of political intrigue and end up being red herring-shaped anti-climaxes.

The fact is that Sweet Tooth is not about spies or politics. It’s about storytelling. It explores the intriguing power dynamic between character and creator, and the relationship between fiction and reality. McEwan teases the reader like a hustler doing a card trick. For most of Sweet Tooth, Serena is the storyteller and we believe what we see are her creations. She influences our reading of characters. She decides what we know of Haley’s stories by summarising them for us and later, she actually shaping his fiction in more ways than one. Near the end, however, it seems she was a puppet who was being both watched and manipulated. Then comes the last line of the book, which again tips the balance in her favour. Ultimately without her, there is no novel and without a novel, there can be no novelist.

The most endearing aspect of Sweet Tooth has nothing to do with meta-narratives or Jaques Lacan’s mirror stage theory. It’s the charm of a happy ending, a phenomenon that is as rare as a unicorn in the world of literary fiction. Yes, the device of the tell-all letter is trite, but if you’re the romantic sort, you’ll forgive McEwan. With the last sentence of the letter and the novel, so many little details fall into place – Serena’s naivete and self-absorbed sentimentality; Tom’s charisma; the details that make Serena impatient but upon which the novel lingers. This novel may not the best example of McEwan’s craft, but it is, fittingly, charmingly sweet.

Family pack: The Illicit Happiness of Other People

In the 18th century, nostalgia meant acute homesickness and the word in its old-fashioned sense seems apt for Manu Joseph’s second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. It’s set in pre-1991 Madras, when India wasn’t shining and Chennai was the name of a 17th-century town rather than a modern metropolis. Joseph says in his acknowledgements, “It is where I spent the first 20 years of my life. I am grateful it was not a paradise.” Curiously, though, his protagonist Ousep Chacko’s unflinching conviction that there is more to his eldest son’s unmentionable act than meets the eye is reminiscent of these lines from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

“…What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield.
And what is else not to be overcome?”

These lines are spoken by Satan’s chief cheerleader, Beelzebub, when Satan’s legion is wallowing in hellfire after being thrown out of heaven. Come to think of it, Joseph’s description of Ousep sleeping after a drunken night is vaguely reminiscent of Satan in hell (Milton says the divine arch enemy looks like a whale). Also like Satan, Ousep was once mighty, bringing light through his writing, until arrogance led to his descent to the plane of an impoverished, alcoholic journalist.
While Ousep is the lead of The Illicit Happiness, there’s another fall that lies at the heart of this superb novel and it is, as far as the Chackos are concerned, more cataclysmic than Satan’s.
Ousep is a journalist by day and neighbourhood menace by night. His wife, Mariamma, has a postgraduate degree in economics, nurses fantasies about killing her husband and regularly talks to the walls. They have two sons — Unni and Thoma. Unni, the elder, is the one whom everyone loves. It seems there is nothing he can’t handle, from his classmates to his mother’s delusions, his father’s drunken antics and his brother’s anxieties. A gifted cartoonist, he isn’t burdened by the mania for academic excellence that drives everyone else in their neighbourhood round the bend. Unni is the last person anyone would expect would go the Humpty Dumpty way, but one day, inexplicably, he does. For the next three years, Unni becomes Ousep’s study and the father’s project of unconquerable Will is to figure out why Unni did that Terrible Thing.
Set in 1990,in a lane that has four residential buildings named A, B, C and D, starring a family that is  curious despite efforts to be normal, The Illicit Happiness is a witty, unforgiving but deeply affectionate look at life in pre-liberalised India. There is none of the acidic contempt or politics that crippled Joseph’s first novel, Serious Men. The Illicit Happiness is fun, despite all the unhappiness that riddles the novel, and Joseph avoids the curse of the second novel with panache. His characters are peculiar, but not precious. Their stories are told with an empathy that is intelligent enough to note absurdities without reducing anyone or anything to a caricature. The author has no sympathy for the blinkers that old India clapped on itself, but even as his scathing critique stings painfully, Joseph’s sense of humour makes it impossible for a reader to not grin while reading the novel. For example, how can you not nod in agreement to this:

“What is this world, exactly? Thoma wonders. A man slaps a girl’s arse, she walks on as if nothing has happened. Then the man gets hit by a coconut thrown by a weird woman, and he walks away without even turning back.”

The appeal of The Illicit Happiness lies in the fabulous Chacko family and the love that makes them an improbable team against the pathetic, desperate world they inhabit. Mariamma joins Em of Em and the Big Hoom in the league of endearingly lunatic mothers. Ousep’s drunken fits are eerily reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s description of his father Anis in Joseph Anton. For this reader, the most endearing Chacko is the continually-perplexed Thoma. But chances are, you’ll find your own favourite Chacko and they’ll make you want to return to Balaji Lane again and again.

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