Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is everywhere.    Oprah Winfrey, the front cover of Time, the window of every bookshop, the top of every ‘books of the year’ list – he even made the front pages a while back for getting his glasses nicked at a book signing in London. You can’t ignore him, even if, like me, you don’t tend to have much interest in the sort of populist, middle-brow, middle-class, domestic realist fodder he peddles – if you don’t have Franzenmania you have (according to the Guardian) Franzenfreud.

 

I was compelled to read Freedom, his new novel, partly out of intrigue at an early review from the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, who makes occasional forays into the domain of literary criticism with more or less embarrassing results. Jones made a series of hyperbolic claims, including that Freedom is ‘the novel of the century’, that it demands comparison with something more exalted than mere Philip Roth (!), and, most hubristically of all, that it is ‘self-evidently a classic’.

 

An intriguing statement. Aside from the obviously questionable implication that aesthetic values are objective  – and that Jonathan Jones is a suitably credible cultural authority that he need not stoop to substantiating his opinions beyond the assurance that they are ‘self-evidently’ correct – an alternative school of thought might proceed along the lines that a classic tends to be a novel that does something original with the form, and therefore its classic-ness is not always immediately apparent, but emerges over time. I was reminded of a little pearl from Proust:

 

 

“We are very slow to recognise in the physiognomy of a new writer the model which is labelled “great talent” in our museum of ideas. Simply because that physiognomy is new and strange, we find in it no resemblance to what we are accustomed to call talent. We say rather originality, charm, delicacy, strength; and then one day we realise that it is precisely all this that adds up to talent”.

 

What I take to be the features (though he didn’t deign to identify them) of Freedom that whipped Jones into such a rhetorical fervour are precisely the opposite of those that constitute “great talent” in a writer according to Proust’s formulation – and which, ironically, prevent him from immediately being labelled as such. What for Jones ticked the ‘classic’ box, for me often seemed merely repetitive, predictable, and conventional. For all its technical proficiency, Freedom seemed for much of the time to be going through the realist motions out of little more than habit.

 

A novel that literally wears its major theme on its sleeve, Freedom uses a moderately dysfunctional, middle-class, Midwest family as a canvass for an exploration of the various permutations of freedom (mostly insofar as it relates to the libertarian founding roots of American ideology – that’s right kids, the ‘American Dream’). Franzen has been hailed as the heir apparent to John Updike as the chronicler par excellence of the American suburban middle-classes, but more often than not he lacks that author’s stylistic polish and delicate attention to detail.

 

 

When Franzen is in the zone, he is capable of writing vivid, memorable scenes, and intricately constructed narrative sections that make subtle use of the ‘free indirect’ style to merge the perspectives of different characters (this in itself being nothing new or remarkable, but then formal innovation is anathema to what Franzen sets out to achieve as a novelist). From a technical point of view, the high point of the novel is undoubtedly the opening 30 pages, which would not be out of place in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Told from the perspective of a generic nosey suburban neighbour, the sequence introduces the Berglund family – the focus of the novel – from the outside.

 

The section shows us the Berglunds at crisis point – when, as we later discover, the tensions whose genesis the novel traces are nearing breaking point – and which we can then contrast with the earlier, happier versions of the major characters that we are subsequently shown. Thus we are introduced to paterfamilias Walter, the bookish, socially awkward former student radical turned middle-aged crank; Patty, the former high-school jock turned apple-pie baking, saccharine good neighbour, turned booze-addled, paranoid desperate housewife and occasional neighbourhood vandal; Jessica, the unremarkable daughter, a silent sufferer amidst the more ostentatious conflicts by which she is surrounded; and Joey, the sexually and entrepreneurially precocious 17 year-old son who has jumped ship and moved in with his girlfriend over the road (partly because his libertarian politics are, in a remarkable piece of symmetry, diametrically opposed to those of his father).

 

It’s an extremely auspicious opening – tight, controlled, written with compulsive verve – like watching a surprisingly slick opening number from a band that you weren’t really expecting to be that good. However, Franzen makes the mistake of playing his best song first. In fact the quality of the prose, the subtlety of the observations and the complexity of the narrative texture decline steadily as the plot accelerates. Ultimately we are left with a paper-thin, implausible page-turner in which the unwieldy themes that Franzen initially seems so keen to subject to serious scrutiny appear to have been long forgotten, squeezed out by the streamlined, televisual slickness of the domestic plotline.

 

 

The reason I would posit for this is that Franzen’s not inconsiderable skills as a novelist don’t lend themselves to psychological or thematic depth. If Franzen were a deodorant he would be Lynx – excels at first impressions, but lets you down in the long run, failing to provide the 24-hour freshness of an Updike, Roth or Bellow roll-on antiperspirant. Franzen is a master of what Somerset Maugham called ‘bedding in’ a character – as in a Raymond Carver story, a well executed in medias res introduction often gives an immediate sense of their essential characteristics (characters in Franzen always have essential characteristics – he’s very much of the school of Dickens and Balzac, rather than that of Flaubert and Hamsun, in this regard).

 

However, the abiding impression of reading Freedom is of watching a slick, well-acted, neatly scripted HBO series. Franzen tricks out his characters with just the right number of faults and quirks to give them a surface vividness – like a TV character – but just doesn’t seem to have the will or capability to take them any further. Hence all of the characters start off as intriguingly vivid creations, before gradually unravelling into two-dimensional mediocrity (the major exception being Lalitha, Walther’s younger mistress – yes, well spotted, it does sound like Lolita – who corpses it from the word go).

 

Freedom is a slick, confidently presented and hugely enjoyable page-turner. It vaguely wafts at its eponymous theme from time to time (fidelity/infidelity, personal liberty/social responsibility, capitalism/regulation, freedom to reproduce/destructive effects of unchecked population control, stuff like that), but you sense that the domestic drama is where Franzen’s heart ultimately lies. All of which is perfectly acceptable. This is a novel whose primary purpose is to entertain you – which it probably will – while making you briefly consider a few general issues. However, unlike most novels that we retrospectively refer to as classics, it is unlikely to shift your philosophical parameters or take you out of your literary comfort zone.

 

 

 

 

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

 

High art collides head-on with S&M in The Piano Teacher, by 2004 Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek – a Jekyll and Hyde for the age of hardcore pornography. Erika Kohut, the main character and eponymous ivory tinkler, is a middle-aged teacher at the Vienna Conservatoire. A socially repressed ice-queen and failed concert pianist, by day she enforces the rigours of classical technique and enlightens her pupils on the finer points of Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms. By night she trawls the seedy porno joints of Vienna, spies on couples having sex in public parks, self-harms and indulges in violent sexual fantasies.

Heard this one before? For anyone who has read, say, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray or American Psycho, the basic outline of this story will be pretty familiar. On the outside the picture of bourgeois respectability, like Humbert Humbert, Erika Kohut’s austere facade conceals a cesspool of rotting monsters. Suffocated by her own high-cultural propriety – as well as her tyrannical mother, with whom she has been engaged in a life-long, love/hate power-struggle – she is secretly consumed by loathing for the complacent, repressed social mores of which she appears to be the epitomy. As in the novels mentioned above, The Piano Teacher plots the course of Kohut’s destructive alter-ego as it spirals out of control.

Erika has until now managed to limit herself to her night-time prowls, wild cat-fights with her mother and clandestine trysts with a razor blade (the scenes involving self-harm are some of the most disturbing in this self-consciously shocking novel). However, her violent fantasies come to a head when she meets and is seduced by her pupil Walter Klemmer, a dashing young would-be ladies’ man. In him Kohut’s frenzied and lurid desires find the vent they have for so long lacked. Young Klemmer is drawn ever deeper into the disturbing world of her sexual imagination, forcing both characters to confront the clash between their social personas and primal, repressed desires.

 

 

While the central trope breaks little ground, one senses that Jelinek’s use of a Jekyll/Hyde character may be a deliberate ploy, adapting a male persona to address the contemporary social and sexual expectations and pressures placed on women. The contrast with Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho – written seven years later but adapting the same literary archetype – highlights aspects of Jelinke’s critique of the female condition. Whereas Patrick Bateman directs his anger outwards against the world around him, Erika Kohut’s rage is time and again directed against her own physicality, the female sexuality degraded and objectified by male pornographic imagery.  Whereas Bateman’s nihilistic despair is a product of excessive freedom – a parody of the unbridled capitalism of the 1980s Wall Street boom – Kohut’s narrative is defined by ever-building claustrophobia and constraint.

This constraint is rendered stylistically by Jelinek’s use of stream of consciousness, flitting between the voices of Kohut, her mother (often as imagined by Kohut herself), and Klemmer. The contrast between these interior voices ties in with the novel’s larger themes. Kohut’s icey monologue is rendered in short, stunted sentences, a grammatical constraint that pulls against the surreal imagery of her thoughts to heighten the novel’s broodingly claustrophobic mood. In direct contrast, Klemmer’s monologue reads as Lawrentian pastiche, the spiralling clauses of his lengthy sentences reflecting his heightened sense of his own sexual power.

While The Piano Teacher is a difficult novel to enjoy in a conventional sense – definitely not recommended for pre-bedtime escapism! – it has some provocative and often profound things to say about the distinction between what society designates ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, the arbitrariness and absurdity of borgeoise social mores, and the destructive nature of gender stereotypes. While the self-consciously sinister tone of the narrative initially feels hammed up and formulaic – the Brothers Grimm meets domestic misery memoir – as the novel goes on it begins to display the multiple levels on which it operates. Ultimately The Piano Teacher emerges as a sophisticated and deathly black parody that undercuts the sanctity of every cultural form it touches.

 

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

 

 

2010 has seen something of a renaissance for Vladimir Nabokov, sadly long departed. Though Lolita takes its place on any list of 20th Century classics and most respectable bourgeois bookshelves, Nabokov until recently seemed in many people’s eyes to occupy the status of a one-book wonder. The ultimate writer’s writer, his name would crop up in any discussion of ‘stylists’ (that Masonic brotherhood of flash rhetoricians and tortured syllable-counters whose name always makes me think of hairdressers), and he was routinely championed by other members of the clan: John Updike, John Banville, and especially Martin Amis. But among the general readership a non-Lolita Nabokov remained an exotic bookshelf rarity.

Early in the year, though, the author’s son Dmitri brought his bizarre will-he-won’t-he dance of seduction to its limp and anticlimactic conclusion with the publication of The Original of Laura. An unfinished series of fragments written by an elderly, dying man, the destruction of which he had unambiguously instructed, the work was generally agreed not to have been Nabokov’s finest hour. Nonetheless, the gravy training had been set in motion, and Penguin re-commissioned the entire back-catalogue. So, wider attention has been drawn to the ingenious pranks of Pale Fire, the bloated, sporadic brilliance of Ada, the understated gorgeousness of Pnin and the forgotten triumphs of the Russian oeuvre: The Gift, Invitation to a Beheading, Despair, Laughter in the Dark, etc.

 


 

As something of a Nabokov fanatic, his famously stylized autobiography Speak, Memory had always been a gaping and somewhat inexplicable gap in my reading. And though it pains me to say so, having finally gotten round to reading it – 240 pages of miraculous prose, naturally – in doing so the semi-conscious reason why I had always slyly avoided it was exposed: once he has taken off the fictional mask, Nabokov often comes across as a bit of a (how to put this…) aloof, patronising, arrogant nob. I had previously gleaned this (furiously suppressed) impression from his famously hectoring and didactic introductions and afterwords to novels, some of the crabbier of his Strong Opinions, and the occasional summary dismissal of a great writer like Bellow or Dostoevsky. But there are times in Speak, Memory when his triumphant self-satisfaction overshadows even the exquisiteness of his prose or the atom-splitting precision of his observations.

Nabokov presents himself in Speak, Memory as an entirely, indeed improbably unconflicted person, entirely assured of his own genius (fair enough) and moral, ethical and social unimpeachability. The problem isn’t so much that this may or may not be an accurate self-assessment – it’s more that endless self-aggrandisation, no matter how immaculately cadenced, isn’t actually all that interesting. We follow the author through a series of snapshots of his opulent youth as an aristocratic scion in Tsarist Russia, through the family’s flight following the rise to power of the spoil-sport Bolsheviks and on to the author’s days as a student at Cambridge and an aspiring author in Berlin. However, due to Nabokov’s refusal to do anything with his memories other than lavishly aestheticise them, the exercise at times feels rather hollow and cold. The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once complained that you could hear the clatter of surgical tools in Nabokov’s prose, and it is ironic that this critical detachment is most glaring in the book that convention dictates should be his most personal.

 

 

Part of this approach is undoubtedly down to Nabokov’s hard-line aestheticism, which is based around an essentially symbolist conception of literary art. According to this line of thought life is one thing, literature is another entirely, and any attempt to approach literature as a vehicle for general ideas relating to the real world – ideology, politics, religion, sociology – is a childish form of make-believe. I may record a perception in the form of a sentence, but the resultant sentence is something entirely other from the real-world stimulus that inspired it. Literature is therefore in a sense locked into its own aesthetic form, endlessly mirroring its own artificial shapes and patterns rather than those of the real world.  Hence the inward-facing, enclosed strucutures Nabokov is so fond of employing in his novels: like turning a novel into its own blurb in Ada, or constructing a narrative out of a set of footnotes to a poem in Pale Fire. Nabokov’s autobiography was never going to be a an ingenuous self-critique so much as an aesthetic exercise in transforming memory into the exalted and autonomous domain of art: “How small the cosmos (a kangeroo’s pouch could hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!”.

However, in Speak, Memory – partly stemming from Nabokov’s overbearing self-satisfaction – we don’t find many of the conflicts that animate his greatest art: the virtuosic unreliability of Humbert Humbert, the pathos of Pnin, the comic insanity of Kinbote. Rather, we are lavished with an often sickly-sweet celebration of prelapsarian Tsarist Russia in which the Nabokovs were free to ostentatiously enjoy their life of inconceivable luxury (his father used to send his shirts from St Petersburg to London to be laundered) in oblivious abandon. Sometimes Speak, Memory reads like a sort of designer advert for wealth, and Nabokov’s convenient artistic assumpton of political PH neutrality is somewhat undermined by the uncomplicated role in which he casts the Bolshevik revolutionaries as the villains of the piece. The point is not that he is necessarily wrong in doing so, but one can’t help but feel he could have afforded the subject more serious scrutiny.

 

 

Hilariously poker-faced ascetic J.M Coetzee once said in an interview, “I have lost interest in Nabokov because he balked at facing the nature of his loss in its historical fullness” (presumably articulating the words extremely slowly in a near-inaudible monotone, wearing the murderous glare of an enraged hawk, and thereafter remaining absolutely immobile in agonising silence for several minutes, eventually causing the interviewer to weep and beg for forgiveness on Nabokov’s behalf). While my admiration for Nabokov’s novels survived Speak, Memory undiminished, the indulgent and entirely non-analytical way in which he romanticises his aristocratic ubringing in Tsarist Russia is at times both sentimental and smug. (The various accounts of Nabokov senior’s paternal benevolence towards the local peasants, and their awe-struck gratitude for his inexplicable good deeds, is particularly grating. Once in the book he even takes time out from his customarily lavish, waitored evening repast to go and deal with one of their rudimentary requests. The rustic savages respond to his generosity by hoisting him in the air and repeatedly tossing and catching him in their arms, in an overflow of joyous devotion).

However, for all its occasional frustrations, the prose in parts of Speak, Memory reaches almost absurdly poetic heights. Despite being a novelistic exercise in transforming memory into art, the impulse in Speak, Memory isn’t narrative development so much as isolated, virtuosic set-pieces in which the original stimulus of memory is aesthetically patterned and cadenced in an attempt to reach artistic equilibrium:

“There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic.”

While his attempts to find this artistic G-spot are often breathtaking, I couldn’t help but be left with the sense that autobiography has a tendancy to bring out the worst in Nabokov. Like Humbert Humbert, he hides behind the mask of his virtuosity, teasing us and never quite letting us in. ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’, says Humbert Humbert in one of Lolita’s most memorable lines. In Speak, Memory we have the fancy prose style without the irony, the ingenious overall design or the emotional range. For all of its lavish pyrotechnics, Speak, Memory ultimately feels like a relatively low-stakes exercise – albeit an extremely impressive one.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Howard Jacobsen writes effusively, in the introduction to my edition, of Catch 22’s magnificent unruliness – its unkempt transgression of bookish conventions about form, symmetry and balance, its rampant comic energy in the grand ribald tradition of Rabelais through Dickens. From Huck Finn and Moby Dick to The Adventures of Augie March and Gravity’s Rainbow, this is also characteristic of many of the books typically bracketed under that most macho of literary categories, the ‘potential Great American novel’.  Like Ernest Hemingway hunting big game, the entire idea of this mythical pursuit smacks of testosterone. Jacobsen accordingly high-fives Joseph Heller for his manly swagger, ‘leonine Jewish Byronic’ looks and dashingly rough edge.

Unsurprisingly, contenders for the Great American Novel gong in the second half of the 20th century often had a military theme (The Naked and the Dead, Gravity’s Rainbow, Slaughterhouse Five, at a historical remove, Blood Meridian); not only did a lot of the defining events of the period involve violence, a lot of the most prominent post-war US authors are also ex-servicemen (many of whom returned to university on the GI Bill): Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy. Even when they’re not writing about war, their works and themes are testosterone-pumped, and if truth be told they don’t often have much to say about one half of the human race.

It’s not atypical for British authors to go a bit starry-eyed in the face of this priapic quality in American literature, and it’s particularly entertaining when, like Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, they try and take it off. Jacobsen himself is a self-styled ‘British Roth’, another US author whose novels are so preternaturally virile that they have been known to spontaneously impregnate blushing librarians if accidentally unsheathed from their protective latex dust-jackets.

If the British novel is a sober, cerebral Inspector Morse, the postmodern US novel is a shit-faced, unshaven Jimmy McNulty banging some broad whose name he doesn’t even remember over the back of a car in a Baltimore parking lot. It’s the Hemingway to our Fitzgerald, the Obelix to our Asterix, the Batman to our Robin. It’s Cormac McCarthy riding a horse around New Mexico and dismissing James and Proust as ‘not proper literature’; it’s Norman Mailer having a hammer fight with Rip Torn live on film; it’s even Saul Bellow, that most unashamedly learned of ex-GI authors, walking it like he talked it with his string of ex-wives, his Chicago street-slang and his macho intellectuals like Augie March, Eugene Henderson and even big, barrel-chested Moses Herzog.

Jacobsen goes on to draw a distinction between the gargantuan, trouser-bulging rambunctiousness of a novel like Catch 22, and the austere, cerebral Flaubertian novel that ‘minds its words’. However, he maintains that this hysteria effect – a contemporary reviewer famously noted that it seemed Catch 22 had been ‘not so much written as shouted onto a page’ – is achieved only with the most meticulous craftsmanship and technical control. While on face value he may be accused of rather too obsequiously allowing Heller to have his cake and eat it – despite Jacobsen’s claims to the contrary, is it not fundamentally easier and less sophisticated to trade in shouty caricature than in delicately observed detail? – Catch 22’s blundering lack of subtlety is an important part of its response to its subject matter.

The manic energy and unrelenting volume of the narrative is used as a means of conveying the endemic insanity of the wartime predicament. The narrative is screamed into your face like a bollocking from a US sergeant major who likes a bit of napalm with his cornflakes – there’s no time for subtle observation or gradations of emotional detail, wrenching Michael Furey disclosures or profound moments of madeleine-prompted recollection.  A reasonable amount of the dialogue is literally shouted, and the accompanying narrative is for the most part set to 11.

However, this hysteria is also the novel’s central trope – applying caricature and exaggeration to describe, with ironic aptness, a situation already more grotesquely exaggerated than any fictional scenario imaginable. Ironic too, that the figure who seems the most implausible is Nately’s whore – a darkly comic, crazed caricature who over the course of the last 50 pages lurks around every corner waiting to stab at Yossarian with a kitchen knife in revenge for Nately’s death – rather than the young men who drop bombs on people they have never met.

Yossarian, the novel’s unremarkable hero, is a kind of reprise on Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin – an everyman who functions as a yardstick by which to measure the absurdity of the characters and situations among which he is placed. He’s also a prototype for a kind of self-protecting numbness in the face of the unspeakable horror of war. Unfashionably serene and rational amidst the novel’s cast of grotesques, the embodiment of the central postmodern trope of sanity being rendered inversely ‘insane’ when insanity is the status quo, Yossarian also voices our own inability to linguistically accommodate the horrific potential of sheer physicality. Kurt Vonnegut wrote ‘there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre’, and just as the birds’ ‘tweet’ is the enduring response to the Dresden bombing in Slaughterhouse 5, the  ‘There there’ that is all Yossarian can offer to an eviscerated Snowdon as he lies dying is a symbol of this linguistic redundancy.

James Wood, that traditionalist in sheep’s clothing, famously dissed ‘hysterical realism’ a few years ago – his genre-tag for the contemporary gaggle of show-offy, google-happy, polymath vaudeville acts like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Dave Eggers’ A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. These novels all took their cue from Don DeLillo’s Underworld, he said – using sheer scale, glitzily redundant idea-flaunting and shouty stylistic gewgaw to mask their lack of psychological depth.

Alongside Thomas Pynchon, Catch 22 is in many ways a forerunner of this sort of hysterical realist novel, and its brand of energetic absurdity influenced a generation of American writers. However, the Emperor’s New Clothes maximalism and caricature excess of contemporary ‘hysterical realism’ seems far more appropriately applied when set against the deathly black backdrop of Catch 22. A formless postmodern howl rather than a modernist well-wrought urn, in its very implausibility and excess it still manages to convince you that it constitutes an all-too-appropriate literary response to the most implausible situation mankind has yet managed to concoct.

C by Tom McCarthy

C, Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy often talks of himself as both an anti-novelist and a neo-modernist, and his pleasingly theatrical declarations recall the days of pamphleteering, movements and manifestos. Founder of the International Necronautical Society, a clandestine ‘semi-fictitious avant-garde network’ that produces conceptual art instalments and delivers hilarious artistic manifestos, a walking high-brow encyclopedia (you know, the sort of person who says stuff about Finnegan’s Wake being ‘actually quite readable’), McCarthy even somewhat hubristically referred to his work in a recent interview as a ‘grand anti-humanist manifesto’. For better or worse, he’s no Hilary Mantel.

So how could a novelist who would appear to be so unapologetically arcane have written a novel that is being widely tipped to win the Booker Prize, that traditional barometer of everything virtuously middlebrow? Is the Booker going experimental or is C perhaps not as wildly challenging as its author would have us believe?

On the surface, C reads not so much as an ‘anti-novel’ (in the overtly deconstructive, nouveau romain sense) as a sort of old-school European novel of ideas. McCarthy seems to routinely pepper even the most casual conversation with references to abstruse continental literature, theory and philosophy, and to eschew all things British almost as a matter of honour. He is at pains to emphasise that he hasn’t read the likes of Amis, McEwan and Rushdie (don’t get me wrong, I frequently wish I hadn’t), and it was no surprise to see him jumping in to support Gabriel Josipovici’s recent book Whatever Happened to Modernism?, about the British failure to culturally or artistically assimilate that movement’s epistemological advances.

Accordingly, there is a very un-British feel to C. This is evident both in its austere lack of the sort of emotional content McCarthy tends to deride as old-fashioned ‘humanism’, and in its rejection of the stylized voice – a combination of on-the-sleeve lyricism and patrician after-dinner wit – that we have come to expect from the modern English novel.

This novel made me think most of big, cerebral, state-of-the-age, idea-driven German-language novels with an allegorical bent – like Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, or Grass’s The Tin Drum. Despite its abstruse themes, it is first and foremost a story told sequentially (or at least episodically) and in a conventionally realist manner. For all the talk (plenty of it from him) of McCarthy being an anti-novelist, a modern-day reprise on cultural iconoclasts from Sterne to Robbe-Grillet who is currently launching a one-man jihad against the stultifying conservatism of contemporary mainstream fiction, C on a surface level doesn’t do anything much that we wouldn’t in general expect a novel to do.

Though McCarthy may in interviews drop post-structuralist slogans like the most rampantly unkempt 1970s PhD student (and good lord he does), the novel displays little of the chic, left-wing avant-gardism of Robbe-Grillet and pals, the one-hand-tied-behind-back Oulipo japes of Calvino, Perec and Queneau, or even the trickery of Latin American ‘neo-baroque’ writers like Borges and Cortazar. If one of McCarthy’s aims in writing is to challenge and subvert the norms and received wisdom of (that perennial chimera) the ‘conventional novel’, then he operates as a mole, taking the system down from the inside rather than coming out all formal guns blazing.

Like a kind of plotted textbook, C is a metaphorical investigation of modernist culture, art and theory – the metaphor being the traditional novelistic device of plot. The novel tells the story of the not-insignificantly-named Serge Carrefax, both an inscrutable cipher and a kind of modernist everyman who is from the outset, as the name would suggest, associated with technology. In the opening scene, Serge is born (artificially induced) into the world to the counterpointed background hum of electricity wires on the one hand and bees on the other. From here, like a 1920s Forest Gump, he seems to wander aimlessly though most of the culturally, historically and technologically significant developments of the age.

Much has been made of the symbolism of the title, from c-words like code, circuit and correspondence, C as in carbon (referred to in the novel as the basic building block of life), c for culture, c for condition, c for cocaine (Serge uses it, Freud used to prescribe it), C as a shout-out to one-letter novel titles like Thomas Pynchon’s V or John Berger’s G (with which it apparently shares more than a passing resemblance).

Of these permutations, ‘code’ is the one that grabs me the most. Buzzing with transmissions (a word McCarthy uses frequently), a circuit-board for the various channels of modernist thought, like an Ezra Pound canto rendered into a superficially ‘realist’ narrative, C is awash with references to and interplay between the various semiotic systems or codes we use to make sense of the world. In one of the novel’s opening scenes, Carrefax’s father – an orator who bloviates on the sacredness of words – demonstrates a contraption allowing a school of deaf-mute children to speak, thereby ceremoniously initiating them into the main code that connects one person to another. Throughout the novel technology – with its new codes and transmissions – is buzzing and crackling, clanging and grinding away in the background

However, the title C also describes the narrative ‘shape’ (such as it is presented to us). The novel consists of four alliterating parts – Caul, Chute, Crash and Call – which (sort of) describe the shape of a C (as well as the events contained therewithin): Caul, the covering perched atop the letter (as well as the literal caul in which Serge is born and from which he figuratively escapes when losing his virginity); Chute, the downward descent of the upper curve (as well as the parachute that is wrapped around his crashed plane prior to him being captured as a prisoner of war); Crash, the collision with the bottom line (as well as the car crash that acts as the culmination of Serge’s libertine period as a smack-head architecture student in 1920s London); and Call, the up-curve transmitting back up to the start of the letter (as well as the telecoms company for which Serge goes out to work in Egypt, where he dies and the novel ends. This ending, incidentally, combines with the opening birth scene to give the plot an inward-facing symmetry, like that of the two curves of a letter C).

What is interesting about C is that it seems to take on the ‘conventional’ novel in the domain of content rather than form. This means it is able to be a neo-modernist novel without using the techniques – stream of consciousness and cut-up narrative – that make high modernist literature intimidating and inaccessible to the general reader. Yet at the same time it is sufficiently packed full of obscure references and concealed internal symbolic patterns to keep Joyce or Pynchon fans happy.

Modernism for the masses? A well-marketed homage to McCarthy’s genuinely quite interesting and expansive range of chic intellectual heroes, and certainly a more cerebrally exerting experience than your average Booker-shortlisted tome. Like Remainder, C is not a novel that knocks you out with pyrotechnics, but it is intricate, subtle and sustained, if not without the occasional longeur. Let’s be honest, it seems unlikely that the current generation of British novelists contains a Joyce or a Proust, and if does, it sure as hell isn’t Tom McCarthy. But then again, as an exhumation of neglected ideas and an attempt to shake the British novel out of its lyrical-realist stupor, C is a step in the right direction – and it’ll be no bad thing if it does win the Booker.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road was the first Cormac McCarthy book I ever read – quite soon after it won the Pulitzer prize and everyone from Oprah Winfrey to George Monbiot started proclaiming its unprecedented and potentially world-saving amazingness. I remember at the time thinking it was kind of like an Old English alliterative poem mixed with an ITV survivor documentary (man hacks off own leg with toothpick to survive avalanche, etc) – The Wanderer meets Touching The Void, with added cannibals.

Having re-read it, I can’t shake off the same ambivalence. Somehow the manly-yet-beautified language – the striking descriptive sequences, the sweeping vistas, the strange Anglo-Saxon syntax, the eulogistic tone, the near-metric, unpunctuated pulse of the prose – is mixed with the uneasy feeling that you’re getting a bit of a cheap thrill. Part of you says ‘this is proper bollox – end of the world? cannibals? really?’ – while the other says: ‘just shut up and enjoy it like everyone else, you pseudo-intellectual tosser. George Monbiot likes it, and he seems like a really good guy’.

To elaborate, it strikes me as kind of a strange combination of deliberate high-brow obscurity (alongside William Faulkner, McCarthy’s biggest influence is Roget’s thesaurus) and low-common-denominator (or as McCarthy would write, lowcommondenominator) appeal: ever-so-slightly nonsensical pseudo-Biblical bombast; a page-turning lack of clauses and generous spacing, but with the surface appearance of canonical gravitas (it just sounds like it should be important); absence of difficult-to-digest psychological complexity or nuance (the characters don’t have names or personalities, don’t really speak, don’t make decisions any more complicated than whether or not to eat each other); scare-factor (end of the world, small boy getting raped and eaten alive, that sort of thing); almost sublime, prelapsarian obliviousness to irony.

Quite a lot of the time it sounds a bit like a sci-fi thriller written using a set of St James Bible-vocabulary fridge magnets.

The effect may be striking, I scoffed, but it only really works if you read it quite quickly and don’t spend too much time thinking about it. That said, I won’t pretend that I didn’t then go out, lay hands upon and devour all of McCarthy’s (nine) other books in reasonably quick succession. I guess the Monbiot voice won.

Now, I think I can locate part of said unease in a fundamental, biologically encoded aversion to sci-fi. I won’t try and justify this to anyone who pipes up citing the universally acknowledged merits of Philip K. Dick or Russel Hoban or Neil Gaiman or whoever. You’re probably right – it’s just not my cup of lapsang souchong.

Unlike The Road, all of McCarthy’s other stuff – with the possible exception of Blood Meridian – is set in the Real World (prior to some inexplicable apocalypse in which every form of life is razed from the earth apart from quite a few people). Not that it’s a Real World most people who read McCarthy will have a great deal of familiarity with. The earlier stuff – The Orchard Keeper (or, Being William Faulkner), Outer Dark (a crazed, freakish, semi-mythical, sacrificial gore-fest – Flannery O’Connor meets the Brothers Grimm), Child of God (the profoundly delightful chronicle of the life, times and misadventures of a serial-killing necrophiliac), and the hefty Suttree (McCarthy’s autobiographical, modernist epic – Ulysses rewritten amidst the riverside detritus, moonshine-drenched camaraderie and grotesque comedy of the Jacksonville underworld) – is set in deep-South, God-fearing, isolated Appalachia: but it might as well be Faulkner’s Yukutawa County.

From then (1978) until The Road (2006), McCarthy focused his attention on the barren borderlands of New Mexico. Blood Meridian (1984) – surely McCarthy’s main claim to lasting significance, and anointed by arch-canoniser and professional Grey Eminence, Harold Bloom as ‘the greatest imaginative work by a living American author’ – is revisionist history meets picaresque meets slasher-epic: Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, Titus Andronicus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, spaghetti western and action movie all rolled into one still-twitching, brutalized word-corpse.

Following the exploits of a precociously vicious and borderline-autistically taciturn protagonist known simply as The Kid  – who drifts around on mangy steed from whorehouse to psychotically dodgy boozer before ending up in a bounty-hunting gang exchanging scalps of indigenous Indians for cash – Blood Meridian is both a carnival orgy of stylised horror, an explosion of the Little House on the Prairie, Cowboy-and-Indian American pastoral mythology, and a Girardian/Nietzschean exploration of the nature of evil – with the occasional shout-out to semiotic theory to keep the academy happy.

It also features McCarthy’s best (in an admittedly weak-ish field) character: a colossally bad-assed, proto-existentialist anti-Christ called The Judge – a persona reprised in (slightly) more domesticated form under the guise of the No Country For Old Men hit-man, Anton Chigurh.

McCarthy’s commercial break, however, didn’t come until the 1990s Border TrilogyAll The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. Again, the format is picaresque, the mode of conveyance is equine, women are seldom seen and almost never heard, Mexicans are all pathologically violent liars, and a well-placed punch is worth a thousand words. Rather than the groundbreaking bad taste and histrionic excess of Blood Meridian, however, the violence is restrained to the upper limits of general acceptability. There’s even a love interest. All The Pretty Horses bagged McCarthy the National Book Award and made him really, really famous.

So, having read and largely enjoyed the back-catalogue – Suttree, though uneven and overlong, manages to add some psychology, characterisation and humour (!) to its lavish lyricism, Blood Meridian is a 350-page face-melting prose solo, No Country For Old Men is slick and deceptively sophisticated, and the Border Trilogy contains some genuinely stunning descriptive passages amidst its swashbuckling silliness – I found myself more, rather than less sceptical about the western-culture-climaxing success of The Road.

On reflection, it seemed like there was a lot of amazing stuff in McCarthy, but his work in general – and The Road in particular – uses, in a fairly cheap way, one identifiable mass-cultural inclination to mask its shortcomings: the reverence for antiquity. Make it sound old, as Ezra Pound didn’t say. Or: if you find you don’t have anything that interesting to say, just add a venerable sheen of epic diction – which, as Goethe did say, does your thinking and your poeticising for you.

And then there’s the whole end-of-the-world, ‘carrying the torch’ for humanity histrionics – it’s just somehow too crass, too easily emotive: pressing big, populist sentimental buttons in a way not altogether dissimilar to, say, Schindler’s List (the cinematic equivalent of a bog-wash: make people cry by shoving their face in the worst genocide in mankind’s history). Or Armageddon.

Wouldn’t it be terrible if there was some huge, inexplicable apocalypse and the only people left were you and your small boy, stranded in a desolate, godless wilderness populated only by marauding gangs of cannibals, with possible but unconfirmed rapist tendencies?  Well yes, of course it would. So what?

Throw-you-hands-in-the-air descriptive sequences aside, the bits of The Road that work best are the bits that take place inside the man’s head. The way I read it, the main narrative basically consists of his interior thoughts. You’ve then got the objective narrative bits that move the characters around – deliberately drained of any sort of emotional content or commentary, and sometimes reading a bit like a self-parody (‘they did this and then they did this and it was cold and he was hungry’ etc etc – this is all ripped out of Hemingway, Carver and Bukowski, incidentally). And then you’ve got the dialogue with the boy, which is ridiculously pared down and minimal. The contrast sometimes works pretty well because a lot of the flashy, poeticised language takes place inside of the man’s head (often when the boy is asleep, like in the opening paragraph), and refers to a world that doesn’t exist anymore. The words still exist but the things that they refer to have all been destroyed.

So it’s kind of tragic because all of this language is dying with the man, and also the values that people have created using this language – like not eating each other – seem to be dying too. All of this is inaccessible to the boy, who has never known anything else. Which is why McCarthy makes it all take place inside the man’s head.

Basically McCarthy’s philosophy boiled down is that the world is a fundamentally meaningless, random and violent place – and things like morality and being nice to each other are flimsy constructs. Though that makes them all the more important. A bit like Lord of the Flies, the premise is that left to our own devices and without any of the restraints that society has placed upon us, the vast majority of use would rape, pillage and murder to get what we want, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves otherwise. But in a perverse kind of way that makes something simple and genuine like the bond between the man and the boy all the more sacred – because it’s fragile. Which, when you think about it, isn’t really all that profound.

Remainder, Tom McCarthy

A couple of years back, Zadie Smith (who, for the record, is still way too hot for her profession – for maximum credibility you need to be either a hunched, macchiavellian ghoul like Martin Amis or an elephantine oaf like A.S Byatt) published a long essay called ‘Two paths for the novel’, which pretty much did what it said on the tin. Said potential paths were represented by two novels: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy. It’s an old argument with a twist, really, which comes down to how novelists these days deal with the aftermath of modernism – during which Joyce took the novel to one ‘what the fuck are you on about mate?’ extreme, and Beckett beat the shit out of it in a Parisian toilet whilst taking it to another.

One of Zadie’s two paths  – the lyrical realist highway – involves knowing that you’re peddling a bit of a shoddy and washed-up old bag of tricks, but doing it anyway (with the occasional wink or furtive flash of your still-crossed fingers to the reader) because, let’s face it, noone can really be arsed to read – or indeed write – Finnegan’s Wake or The Unnameable. This is the quickest and most convenient route to commercial success, and it’s the one taken by Joseph O’Neill, whose Netherland was magisterially accomplished in pretty much every respect, but ultimately so formally conventional as to be quite forgettable (Zadie’s argument less felicitously paraphrased, but I’m pretty much with her on this one).

The other way is the ‘scenic route’ – which involves being fancy, self-aware and META rather than just telling a story in nice pretty sentences. This is the less commerically viable route, as evidenced by the fact that Tom McCarthy’s Remainder – designated ambassador of the latter approach – took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. I’d already read Netherland (basically The Great Gatsby with more cricket) when I read the Zadie Smith essay but I’d never heard of Tom McCarthy. And I’ll be honest, I thought it sounded more my scene: a guy wakes up from a mysterious accident (involving ‘bits of technology’ falling from the sky) and has to have cognitive therapy to rewire him back into reality; he wins loads of money in compensation and blows it all on staging increasingly elaborate reconstructions of trivial events (later graduating to a gang execution and a fully-fledged bank robbery involving shootings and hijacked planes); he then re-reconstructs it by telling you about it (but he might actually just be making it up), and it turns into a bit of a Borgesian labyrinth of reconstructions to the power of reconstructions.

(It’s not as much of a twat-fest as I just made it sound, but I understand your concerns).

Those who have had the not-entirely-unmoderated pleasure of seeing it will at this point say ‘Isn’t that pretty much exactly the same as Synecdoche New York?’ (where a writer blows his Macarthur Fellowship money on elaborately re-staging scenes from his life in an apartment block). This had occurred to me, and two minutes on google revealed that Remainder was written before Synecdoche New York, but it wasn’t really very well known until recently, and Charlie Kaufman said in an interview he’d never heard of it (cough).

Not that originality is really what Remainder aims for – it’s packed full of literary samples, like an insanely highbrow mash-up: from the opening sentence’s tip of the cap to Gravity’s Rainbow to the waft of fried liver carried over from Ulysses to the private eye who seems to have drifted in via Molloy to do some of the interpretative leg-work for us, to the reconstructed apartment block out of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Tom McCarthy – who has been all up in the literary press since his new novel C was made this year’s token highbrow effort on the Booker longlist – has been quoted as saying that he thinks of writing as being a bit like DJing, and Remainder was certainly designed with the needs of the point-scoring literary train-spotter firmly in mind.

Unlike Synecdoche New York – which seemed to me to turn into a big theory-obsessed, kitchen sink-shaped mess about half way through – Remainder manages to keep all of the knowing post-grad jiggery pokery pleasingly under control. It’s so controlled, in fact, that it took until about half-way through for me to stop feeling underwhelmed. As sparely styled as Coetzee at his most stingey, this is a novel that makes no concession to conventional lyricism (and is all the more refreshing for it) – but this means that it is, as they say at boarding school, a grow-er not a show-er. In fact, the opening hundred or so pages – complete with scenes down the boozer, rubbish dates, house parties in Brixton, the occasional heavy-handed shout-out to pop culture (someone whistles ‘History Repeating’ by The Futureheads) – reads a bit like Martin Amis without the flashy prose.

As Tom McCarthy puts it in an essay on Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy (an incredible novel, incidentally), “literary realism is itself a contruct as laden with artifice as any other”, and in the often plodding opening section – in which McCarthy has yet to show his full hand – we are left with something initially resembling a half-hearted rendition of the sort of literary realism that McCarthy is writing against, without any of the stylistic luxuries we would normally associate with the genre. However, in the second part of the novel – where reconstructions spiral into reconstructions and the novel turns into a hall of mirrors – the original perseverance yields some serious dividends.

Whether I would place Remainder in the company of the literary heavy-weights it implicitly seeks to a align itself with is another matter – but the fact remains that accomplished, inventive and genuinely ambitious British novelists with mainstream recognition are few and far between. Whereas so many middlebrow lyrical realist novels seem to be merely going through the motions – like Wolf Hall, which though clearly very accomplished and painstakingly detailed left me catatonically underwhelmed – Remainder is a novel that isn’t afraid to look in the mirror and drop the convenient realist fallacy for long enough to explore some other potential ways of playing the fiction game. And with critics cueing up to sound the novel’s death knell, that seems to me to be a very good thing indeed.

I have, accordingly, purchased C in its imposing hard-back edition, complete with jacket copy modestly suggesting that it is “reminiscent of Bolano, Pynchon and Beckett”. It may or may not live up to the hype, but at least it won’t be reminiscent of every other carbon-copy, production-line middlebrow novel on the Booker longlist this year.

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