Saturday, November 26, 2011
In a review of Tom McCarthy's C from last year, I noted that McCarthy's novel--despite its much-vaunted use of ideas from second-wave cybernetics and Systems Theory--was really an updated version of naturalism that shares more in common with Thomas Hardy than the formal innovations of Modernism. The main innovation in C is that, instead of making its protagonist a Christ-like innocent as in Jude the Obscure, the main character, Serge, is a flat, affectless figure typical of "postmodern" texts. In the year since making this argument, however, I've noted that McCarthy is just one among a larger "movement," including such authors as Michel Houellebecq, Goncarlo Tavares and Jean Echenoz, producing work that could broadly be described as a form of neo-naturalism.
Echenoz's Lightning--like C--focuses on issues surroudning the development of technological modernity as a series of complex networked systems, and its central figure Gregor (a thinly disguised portrait of Nikola Tesla) is a deeply neurotic man who also possesses an exceptional genius for inventing new technologies linked to electricity. Ultimately, though, Lightning is a far more successful book than C for two reasons: 1) its relative brevity means that its strident antihumanism doesn't feel repetitive, and 2) the narration itself has an arch tone that gives the text a much-needed layer of irony.
At the same time, though, the book is not without its flaws. The first 50 pages, in particular, read more like a summary of events than a narrative, and, as such, will seem largely superfluous to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Tesla's life. Later in the book, however, Echenoz begins to offer a more unique perspective on the events of Tesla's life, and Lightning ultimately develops into a stirring and wonderfully odd little book.
But for all it's merits, my only objection to Lightining is that, for all its ingenuity, it's ultimately the second-best version of Tesla's life presented in recent years, since the best is undoubtedly this:
Posted by Emmett Stinson at 5:04 AM