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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.


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.