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.