What Do Women Want? Ian McEwan's Characters Are Never Sure

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His novels up until the new Sweet Tooth wrung tragedy from men's inability to understand females. But things are a little different this time.

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Knopf

Two voices compete for our attention in Ian McEwan's new book, Sweet Tooth. One is that of MI5 agent Serena Frome, who narrates the framing plot about an affair she had with a writer named Tom Haley. The other is Tom's, contained in snippets of his fiction interspersed throughout the novel. It's his voice that compels us more, though, in part because the stories Tom tells—taken from fiction ideas stored up in McEwan's notebook—are the ones McEwan has always been comfortable telling: tragedies about the misunderstandings that separate men from women.

One of Tom's vignettes is about a man who falls in love with a mannequin. He sees "her" posing in a shop window, as if "she was pursuing a thought... wrist turned outwards as she lost herself to an idea. Or perhaps a memory..." He becomes desperate to know this imagined conscience; its aloofness "was a goad, a piercing enticement." Another tale, "Pawnography," is about a marriage collapsing under the pressure of monotony and poverty. A break-in occurs when the husband, Sebastian, is at work—or so his wife tells him. He instead finds out that it was she who had taken their things and pawned them. Betrayal elicits in Sebastian a maddening arousal: "He is excited by that glance because it came from a stranger ... He had got her all wrong. She was no longer familiar."

Tom's females are enigmas that fiction promises to expose. It's a theme with a long history in literature—Samuel Richardson's Clarissa has been called the first and completest portrayal of consciousness; Isabel Archer and Mrs. Dalloway followed in subsequent centuries. McEwan inherits the tradition knowingly (Richardson even gets a mention in McEwan's Atonement as being "a fine psychologist"). Women glide through his books always with simultaneous familiarity and strangeness. "He had always known her, he knew nothing about her"—so Robbie muses in Atonement upon his encounter with Cecilia. Leonard of The Innocent reflects that Maria has "the sort of face, the sort of manner, onto which men were likely to project their own requirements." Edward in On Chesil Beach convinces himself that Florence's shyness was "in all, part of the intricate depth of her personality, and proof of her quality," what he imagines to be the "veil for a richly sexual nature," heightening his attraction.

The elusiveness captivates, then ruins. How woefully, disastrously wrong Edward is about Florence. She remains impenetrable, in mind and in body. His ignorance of the first impenetrability and anger at second drives them apart on their wedding night. We realize from the beginning, though, that Edward and Florence are "almost strangers... strangely together," and no amount of love will overcome the gulf between them. The tragedy is made greater by its feeling of inevitability, established page after page. Florence is untangled for us, the reader looking in on her fictional realm, but entirely opaque to the husband next to her in the text. "He did not know," we are told, "or would not have cared to know." Therein lies the tension.

Women glide through his books always with simultaneous familiarity and strangeness. The elusiveness captivates, then ruins.

McEwan's skill as a writer lies in how deftly he controls these tensions and delivers them to the reader. In Black Dogs, Jeremy sets out to write a memoir about his estranged in-laws, June and Bernard. June's encounter with the titular black dogs comes to define her, unmasking irreconcilable differences between man and wife. Bernard holds contempt for June's spirituality, until eventually "the ideas by which June lived her life [became] the ones by which she measured the distance between Bernard and herself." Jeremy relays onto the page Bernard and June's separate tellings of their story, so that in reading our feelings and Jeremy's coincide. McEwan the modernist is at work here. Jeremy gives voice to our thoughts, because his frustrations become ours, too. "You never listened to what she was telling you," he accuses Bernard. "She wouldn't listen either."

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Boer Deng is a freelance writer in Washington D.C. She has written for The New Republic.

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