What Does Ian McEwan Know About Sexual Politics? And What’s With the Dismembered Mannequin?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Nov. 7 2012 11:48 PM

Want To Understand Sexual Politics? Read This Novel.

Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth reveals the deepest ways in which men misunderstand women.

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When Haley decides to write a novel about her, to chronicle her deception as art, he decides that as a writer he has to enter her consciousness: “ I had to get out of my skin into yours. I needed to be translated, to be a transvestite, to shoehorn myself into your skirts and high heels, into your knickers, and carry your white glossy handbag on its shoulder strap.” And yet, the effort to do so is incomplete, as it has to be; it is clouded by his own vulnerabilities and hopes and vanities. It is himself he is looking for.

As he puts it, “my task was to reconstruct myself through the prism of your consciousness,” and it is here we feel the wish of the male novelist, the over-the-top adoration she feels, the near worship, the sensuous, relentlessly physical appreciation, the abject subjugation of her intellectual tastes to his. She is just clever enough for her approbation to matter, but not so clever that she challenges his intellectual supremacy. She says early on in their relationship: “He adored Spenser but he wasn’t sure I was ready for it.”

Author Ian McEwan
Author Ian McEwan

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

Even the sensitive, artistically attuned, intellectually sophisticated male writer sees a woman in a very different way than she would see herself. The gap McEwan investigates is enormous and fascinating, and if we truly want to understand sexual politics, we need to read, instead of ironic blogs and Caitlin Moran and faux sociology, more novels like this one.

McEwan’s meta-fictional trick, his pulling the rug out from under the reader is interesting, because it requires her to reread, rethink, retread the novel. One’s mind drifts back over lines like, “At some point in the early evening he came back quietly into the bedroom, slipped in beside me and made love to me again. He was amazing.” On realizing that the character is a male novelist’s dream girlfriend, his vision, we are confronted in a vivid, uncomfortable way with the fabrications of love, the ways we animate and concoct other people, the thoughts we put in their heads, the mostly hidden condescensions of men toward women. This is a book you can think about for a long time, a book that lingers and disturbs, in a good way. I think here of an exchange between Serena and Tom: “I said I didn’t like tricks, I liked life as I knew it recreated on the page. He said it wasn’t possible to recreate life on the page without tricks.”