“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Review: C by Tom McCarthy

By Tom McCarthy
Random House

Tom McCarthy’s disappointing new novel, C, is set in the early 20th Century and follows the life of Serge Carrefax, who is raised on the grounds of a school for the deaf. From a young age, Serge is exposed to a variety of developing technologies—particularly wireless radio—by his father, an amateur inventor. The book goes on to trace Serge's maturation as he goes to a sanatorium for treatment of an intestinal illness, serves as an aviator in WWI, and then moves to London and Egypt after the war.
C has received a great deal of praise and has even been shortlisted for the Booker Prize to the shock of many in the publishing industry. Although McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, was praised by Zadie Smith and rightly gained the status of a cult classic, his work has largely evaded more popular recognition. Moreover, both McCarthy and his publishers have claimed that C has its roots in Modernist and avant-garde aesthetics, and such difficult books don’t usually get put up for the Booker.
And in certain respects, there are significant differences between C and the standard literary novel; C intentionally never delves into the psychological states of its characters, preferring an aesthetic posthumanism that results in obsessive observations of everyday objects, and, most importantly, technological artefacts, which are rendered in almost pornographic detail. Serge (whose name is a pun on an electric surge) is an affectless narrator, who even seems unfazed by his sister’s death, and after having served in WWI, notes that—instead of being shellshocked—he actively enjoyed the War (late in the novel, Serge drops out of a drawing class because he cannot master perspective—i.e. he lacks ‘depth’). In focusing on modern systems and developing technologies, C attempts to show how the globalised networks of our contemporary world were already in place at the beginning of the 20th Century. In documenting the evolution of modernity, C undertakes a project similar to that of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World, although his posthumanism perhaps more closely resembles the work of Michel Houellebecq.
But for all of this ornate framing and aesthetic posturing, C is an epic failure of a novel that manages to be both exceptionally dull and—for what is allegedly a novel of ideas—surprisingly empty of original thought. The basis for McCarthy’s work is a body of academic thought known as Systems Theory, which sees virtually everything in the world from our brains to international relations as being composed of complex interlocking systems. Anyone who has read Niklas Luhmann’s 150-page, Observations on Modernity, for example, will immediately recognize 95% of the ideas in C (e.g. the meaning of Serge’s wartime role as an ‘observer’ in an airplane is of obvious significance to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Luhmann). For that matter, the Wikipedia entry on Systems Theory serves as a cipher that will decode the vast majority of this novel’s symbolic framework—indicating the degree to which C is an oversimplified attempt to fictionalise theoretical concepts in novel form.
Worse still, McCarthy’s metaphorical deployment of these theoretical notions is incredibly ham-handed. Serge is born with a caul, and upon being told that this is a fortuitous sign for sailors, Serge’s father responds by talking about a wireless radio transmitter he’s working on, saying: ‘Sailors? I tell you Doctor: get this damn thing working and they won’t need luck. There’ll be a web around the world for them to send their signals down.’ Get it? He’s talking about the internet! McCarthy repeats this trope on several other occasions: when he depicts amateur radio enthusiasts transmitting in morse code, for example, their abbreviated messages closely resemble—shock and surprise—the syntax of modern SMS messages. This isn’t exactly revelatory stuff.
Ultimately, McCarthy includes moments like these because he simply doesn’t trust his readers enough to ‘get’ what he is talking about. Even when McCarthy does manage to strike a nice idea or passage, he inevitably ends up glossing it, just in case the reader has failed to understand. During Serge’s aviator-training in WWI, one pilot falls out of a plane and leaves a human-shaped mark in the grass where he’s landed; the mark is caused by the acid that naturally occurs within the human body. Although the import of this moment is already clear, McCarthy nonetheless feels the need to explicate:
‘All his memories, and everything he ever thought about or did, reduced to battery chemicals.’
‘Why not?’ asks Serge. ‘It’s what we are.’
The constant repetition of this heavy-handed exposition throughout the book ultimately produces the sensation that McCarthy is belittling his readers for fear that they won’t be able to keep up with his intellect; as a reader, it’s insulting.
To further his mechanistic portrayal of the human, C also fixates on bodily functions such as masturbation, erection, ejaculation, sex, defecation, and urination: ‘He lets a fart slip from his buttocks, and waits for its vapour to reach his nostrils; it, too, caries signals, odour messages from distant, unseen bowels.’ Technically, this moment does foreshadow stomach problems that Serge will later develop, but what in the world are we to make of this description of Serge’s bowels as ‘distant’ and ‘unseen’? Are they abnormally distant (in the next room, a mile down the road)? And wouldn’t he have much greater reason for concern if he could see his bowels? Not only does this sentence indicate the imprecision of McCarthy’ s prose, but also these humourless scatological descriptions quickly grow wearisome.
What annoys me the most about C, however, is both McCarthy and his publisher’s claim that C derives from a Modernist or avant-garde tradition (to be fair, McCarthy has been more measured about this claim than his publisher). If this is the case, then McCarthy must be party to a kind of Modernist literature that I have yet to encounter. In point of fact, the clearest aesthetic precedent for C is in fact the naturalist novel as it was practiced in Victorian England; in many ways, C closely resembles Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Whereas Jude is an innocent and humane protagonist forced to live in an inhumane world, Serge is an inhuman protagonist living in an inhumane world. But even this slight twist is deeply unoriginal, since Serge is the ‘schizophrenic’, postmodern anti-hero par excellence, a figure enshrined in theory by Fredric Jameson in his Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism two decades ago.
McCarthy ultimately does himself a disservice by linking his work to the tradition of Modernism because C pales in comparison to the work of 20th Century writers—such as Wyndham Lewis and William Gaddis—who have focused on the links between humans and technology. Moreover, none of the best Modernist writers would have ever produced a prose as ponderous and leaden as McCarthy’s; in Remainder, this style produced a sort of sympathetic resonance with the subject matter, but in C it simply makes for an incredibly tedious read. The fact that C is being described as an experimental novel ultimately only serves as an indication of just how conservative mainstream literary fiction has become. Whether or not it wins the Booker Prize, C is an extraordinarily dull book that is both lacking in serious intellectual content and  aesthetic invention. Readers interested in McCarthy would do much better to read his first novel, Remainder, and avoid C altogether.


Paul McQuiston said...

I actually enjoyed C quite a bit and found the final three sections captivating, but you raise several fair points, especially regarding McCarthy's co-opting of ideas from Luhmann's Systems Theory and Jameson's postmodern work. Whether or not this is "avant garde" is irrelevant to me, and I enjoyed the idea of the spread of wireless cable technology in the early 20th Century standing as an allusion for the spread of the Internet in the late 20th Century. I suppose different strokes for different folks. Who would you suggest for stronger modern avant garde fiction?

Emmett Stinson said...

Interesting. To me, the very idea that you noted ('I enjoyed the idea of the spread of wireless cable technology in the early 20th Century standing as an allusion for the spread of the Internet in the late 20th Century.') is kinda inherently uncool to me, but, yes, everyone is different. I reckon it will definitely seem dated in 20 years, too. That being said, I would HIGHLY recommend Evan Dara's 'The Lost Scrapbook' (1996), which you can get online here: www.aurora148.com. It's fantastic!

Paul McQuiston said...

I like (and McCarthy is admittedly heavy handed with the idea) Serge's lack of perspective, or depth of field, in several different areas in his life, most pointedly in his early artistic training. This has been an area of concern for some modern social commentators (specifically, the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr addresses this idea in a popular, non-intellectual manner); that the spread of information and access of information has given the Internet generations an increased breadth of knowledge, but diminishing depth of knowledge.

I will certain check out Mr. Dara's book. Thanks for the recommendation!

cascoly said...

Just finished C last night, and was deeply disappointed after reading the various reviews when the book came out. I was expecting something more than a chronologival narrative filled with simplistic recitations of convergences, coincidences, and cryptic commentary. I did enjoy the writing itself at times, but by mid way realized the story really wasn't going anywhere.

Oddly, i had just finished re-reading Pynchon's 'The Crying of Lot 49' the week before, and with this earlier masterpiece fresh, i was able to appreciate both what McCarthy was trying to do, but also how strained and ultimately unrewarding it was.

Emmett Stinson said...

Yes, and I think you're right to note that what's weird about C is that it's really quite conventional--I had expected there to be some kind of formal innovation; instead it seems to me like a fairly simple inversion/negation of the psychological novel. This is the reason, ultimately, that it reminded of Thomas Hardy; C is ultimately a neo-naturalism that attacks humanism (which is good), but ultimately puts nothing new in its place. That's why it isn't nearly as good as something like Evan Dara's The Last Scrapbook, which also represents a genuine attempt to create a new form for literature (and which could also be seen as an attempt to envision and represent the social totality of the modern world, or at least a part of it). C is, in many ways, very much a novel in the tradition of English Victorian doubt, which isn't very interesting to me, but may well be interesting to others.

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