C by Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy's debut novel, Remainder, took seven years to find a traditional publisher. His second novel, Men in Space, has not come out in the United States, but Zadie Smith wrote a widely-read essay in 2008 praising his first book as the way forward for fiction. After the boost her article and others gave him, McCarthy's third novel, called C, has just been published here and has received the kind of attention for which Jonathan Franzen was attacked by other writers recently: two reviews in the New York Times within a few days.
One was a pan, the other a rave. Reviewers elsewhere have been split, but some have compared C to Joyce's Ulysses, and to various Pynchon novels. I would argue McCarthy's newest is more accessible than Joyce's late works or Gravity's Rainbow. But C's tethering to its monumental antecedents restricts its attempts to move beyond them. And perhaps that's McCarthy's point. I find plausible the idea that his new book is the culmination of a game the author is playing with the literary world.
The protagonist of C views the world as a machine might. Serge grows up in rural England deciphering Morse code from a radio tuned to the increasingly busy airwaves of the early twentieth century. McCarthy names our hero Serge Carrefax because the character is obsessed with electric surges that carry facts. Slavish imitation of Pynchon and Vonnegut, or parody? My bet is on the latter, but delivered uncannily deadpan.
The third-person narrator, and Serge himself, obsessively break down experience into information. Serge imagines a chirping bird has passed encoded instructions to the looms on his family's estate. Serving as an air force radio operator in World War I, he associates lines of verse from a pageant with the rhythmic firing of a machine gun. While there is a cold beauty to these ideas, McCarthy reiterates this and other motifs, metaphors, and important words relentlessly. He makes nearly a dozen references to snakes in the novel's Edenic first section.
Why? My guess is that McCarthy repeats himself in C because machines communicate that way to ensure data delivery. He also has in mind explorations by postmodern artists and theorists of difference and repetition. Do novels tolerate repeating themselves as well as music, poetry, or visual arts? I don't think so, unless the refrain achieves new resonance and meaning each time. Fans of the hundreds of references to flowers in Ulysses' Lotus Eaters chapter might say that repetition is an illusion. But redundancy can be a sign of authorial anxiety, a struggle to rival the variety of experience at the expense of art's condensation and power.
The first section of C devotes several pages to the verse pageant Serge later hears in the guns of war. The performance is staged by the family and its friends on the Carrefax estate. Throughout these pages people misspeak, and mishear one another. The text of the pageant is quoted several times, while actors garble their lines, and random exclamations abound. But nothing turns on the failed messages. No one dies, or even gets bad news. So we read through these pages guessing at their point, finally to realize that McCarthy wants to illustrate that human communication was broken before machines got involved. I would have preferred a more profound dramatization of that concept, but I might not be completely sympathetic to the strictest modernist and postmodern notions.
Serge's interests include insects, radios, and rudimentary chemistry, but not people. When his sister dies, he feels almost nothing, despite his physical and intellectual relationship with her. He experiences World War I as a spectacle rather than a tragedy, or a catastrophe. Serge's eventual descent into drugs reads more as a sensory and intellectual exploration than an escape from inner pain.
Serge is what some would call a flat character. Flat characters are not new, but they have been used heavily by Pynchon and other po-mo scribes trying to keep pace with technological and social changes that might dehumanize us. McCarthy cannot employ this device and let us experience Serge's flatness without highlighting it repeatedly, especially in a scene from art class, where the narrator emphasizes that Serge "sees things flat; he paints things flat. Objects, figures, landscapes: flat." Later, Serge spends time in Egypt among the flat depictions on their monuments. I dislike the bludgeoning aspect of McCarthy's approach, even if it is parody.
One aspect of C that intrigued me was that Serge's lack of depth is something of a narrative ruse. We see from his interactions with other people that our hero can be sarcastic, bluntly seductive, and guileful. He's less remote from people than the narrator's portrait of Serge's inner life suggests. Suffering over his sister and the war must figure in his drug addiction, even if that's not explicitly acknowledged. But McCarthy does not delve into the more recognizable parts of Serge's interior. Perhaps this is because they don't fit his authorial plan. Is the book trying to have us believe Serge is a colder, more daring creation than he is?
That Zadie Smith elevated McCarthy's first novel, which was also written in the decades-old postmodern vein, as the way forward makes me suspicious. She wrote at length in that piece about the anxieties of lyrical realism, but nothing about the anxieties of belated postmodernists. The gorgeous sentences woven into C bring to mind a term like lyrical postmodernism. Serge sees deadly explosions at the front lines, and "Then their pops arrive, then louder stutters, then high, booming eruptions: sounds and lights meshing together as the air comes back to life, like a magnificent engine warming up." This is impressive, and a sign that McCarthy has learned well from his predecessors. Pynchon and DeLillo have always made a detached lyricism part of their game.
But there is so much clumsy po-mo apparatus around these moments that they are deadened, rendered rote. This frames aptly the difficulty for writers in experimental modes like McCarthy, and for those in the more traditional modes like Franzen, and the writer to whom Zadie Smith compared McCarthy originally, the critically acclaimed Joseph O’Neill. Are the traditions of plot and character more deadening than the Joycean and Pynchonesque experiments that followed? Is hewing to either path useful for the novel? What other approach can we find? What yields maximum vitality?
This brings us to the stranger possibility cited before, that C is a brilliant hoax. For a devotee of technology, progress, and the future, McCarthy has always been looking back. With C, he’s written a richly researched historical novel, and he helps run a "semi-fictitious" avant-garde organization called the International Necronautical Society, which recalls the Surrealists and other early twentieth century avant-gardes. He has applied Derrida, Bataille, and other mid-century literary theory to a deconstruction of a comic book, which he called Tintin and the Secret of Literature. Yes, there is no longer supposed to be any distinction between high art and other kinds. But I think McCarthy's aping a total reverence for such ideas, testing them with devotion.
He has staged conceptual and performance art globally. He published Remainder with a French visual art press. So maybe McCarthy's aesthetic program is semi-fictitious too, an elaborate performance culminating in the publication of C. This artist plays the role of overzealous postmodern novelist with insouciant accuracy. Why turn a once-revolutionary movement into an orthodoxy, other than to kill it? I offer one particular scene from C, which spends multiple pages on Serge's constipation treatments, as McCarthy's self-conscious diagnosis of the contemporary novel.
"You," the doctor continues, "have got blockage. Jam, block, stuck. Instead of transformation, only repetition. Need to free what's blocking, break whole rhythm of intoxication -- then good transformation can resume and things will pass through you and make you open up."
C by Tom McCarthy