Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Tom McCarthy: C

Tom McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, begins with cryptic reference to an accident: "something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits." When the unnamed narrator wakes from a coma he has money from a settlement and a hole in his memory. The success of the novel from there is based largely on its ability to obsessively track the perverse logic of its central questions: what constitutes authenticity and what happens when you try to recreate it? As the story progresses and the narrator tries to reenact a scene from his past with maniacal precision, these ideas are traced and retraced and pushed to their logical extremes. The result is an absurd, corrosive comedy strong enough to melt the novel’s thick core of philosophy and critical theory and give it the lightness it needs. As a first novel, Remainder got people’s attention. Its vision was unique, forward-looking by way of the 60’s avant-garde, while McCarthy himself, English born and Oxford educated, claimed more of an affinity with the art world than the literary. In the New York Review of Books Zadie Smith called Remainder "one of the great English novels of the past ten years" and proposed it as a potential alternative path for the novel, a way to break from the overfamiliar style of mainstream literary fiction.

McCarthy’s new novel C, is a very different book. Ostensibly a take on the historical novel, it follows Serge Carrefax from his birth on an estate in southern England, to a European spa town, to his involvement in WWI and subsequent life in London and Cairo. Serge himself, like the rest of his family—and the narrator of Remainder—is a strangely obsessive character. Overshadowed throughout most of his childhood by his older sister Sophia, Serge functions in the novel largely as a brilliant observer of phenomena and patterns. As a teenager he obsesses over transcribing the telegram signals floating in the air around him. Like the narrator, Serge senses pattern and meaning everywhere. Dense webs of associations and parallels frequently take up entire paragraphs and beyond. Long passages worthy of Robbe-Grillet are given to description of flora and fauna (bugs play an especially privileged role as McCarthy’s go-to image for rumination). A set piece of deaf children reenacting scenes from Ovid reaches nearly ten pages.

As McCarthy freely admits in interviews, it is not realistic characters and scenarios he’s after. His models are more Beckett and Ballard than Updike or Roth. Ultimately, it is the exploration of codes and connections that interest McCarthy, moments of transmission and reception. A dead cat is thought by Serge to "contain some kind of information—’contain’ in the sense of enclosing, locking in, repeating in a code for which no key’s available, at least not to him." After his sister’s death by suicide Serge’s reaction is detached and analytical. He feels no grief and instead gets aroused during her funeral as he makes a mental connection between the rails in the grave that will be used to lower the coffin and the rails of a train track:

The sunlight’s also spilling across the large earth-piles by the trench, blurring their edges; it looks as though tiny clumps have broken loose and are slightly levitating. The steel rails in the trench glint blue and silver. They seem to hum, like railway lines hum when a train’s approaching in the distance, just before you hear the train itself...

The sensation of humming, real or imagined, grows: Serge can sense vibrations spreading round the lawn. He feels them moving from the ground into his feet and up his legs, then onwards to his groin. They animate his own flesh, start it levitating. He can’t help it. He crosses his hands in front of his crotch and looks about him: everyone else is looking at the vicar, or the coffin -- not at him.

Later after joining the Royal Flying Corps, Serge becomes a professional observer, picking out bombing targets and firing a Lewis gun over German territory. In the course of battle Serge spontaneously ejaculates over the back of his plane after snorting a line of coke and shooting up enemy trenches. When shown pictures of enemy batteries he’s destroyed they appear to him as "ticks that have burrowed into the ground’s skin and embed themselves there." Serge imagines his gunfire not as "a deadening," but the opposite, "a quickening, a bringing to life." In this way, C obsesses over its patterns, shifting effortlessly from the telegrams and natural sciences of Serge’s childhood to military technology, cocaine, chorus girls, whatever else crosses its path.

Despite being a nominal bildungsroman, C keeps its protagonist distant and vague. Instead of deepening our understanding of Serge, McCarthy ushers him through various set pieces and historical moments (including the aforementioned fighter plane period, which feels at once heavily researched and familiar enough that it could have been mostly cobbled together by memory from Catch-22 and Gravity’s Rainbow—an effect McCarthy may actually like). These scenes tend to be dense with knowledge and ideas—in the acknowledgements McCarthy sites over half a dozen specialists in various fields—while on the page they come off as thin on actual life. But to overly fault McCarthy for not writing strong realist characters is to judge him by rules of a game he never signed up to play. What he’s looking for in C are webs of connection.

The title itself goes a long way towards illustrating the project of the novel. As Luc Sante points out on the dust jacket, "C is for carbon, cocaine, Cairo, and many other things." And yes, there are many other things. When Serge goes into the military he is assigned to a group called "C-Flight". The man who educates Serge is named Mr. Clair and Serge’s family name is, of course, Carrefax. At his best, McCarthy is able to spin connections such as these into fascinating if somewhat opaque patterns. He creates a sense of tension beneath the surface, the novelistic equivalent of what two minor characters hear on the opening page of the book: "the frictive rasp of copper wire against more copper wire." When this works, C buzzes with life and intellectual energy. When it doesn’t, it feels like the novel you’re glad Baudrillard never wrote.

Tom McCarthy
Knopf, 2010