Monday, 18 October 2010

Tom McCarthy, C (2010)

C like an ear, or a satellite dish: receptacle for picking up the ambient wavelengths, audible frequencies and radiowaves. C for Carrefax, the protagonist: first name C-with-a-cedilla for Serge. C for the shape of wriggling silkworms, upon which the fortune of his French-extraction family's English estate is based. C for Caul, with which Serge is born (C for Copperfield, the provenance of this Dickensy trick) that prevents him from drowning in water, and later saves him from drowning in soil. C for ceremony. Then, part 2: C for Chute, and Serge's adventures as an observer in his First World War RFC airplane. C for Carbonisé, the burnt-up fate of many pilots. C for Captured-by-the-Germans. C, the winding shape of the various escape tunnels the POWs dig. Which leads to the novel's part 3, and C for Crash: postwar London, c-for-cocaine, wild parties, and c for car, driven under the influence at speed and smashed up. Finally part 4, C for Call, in C-for-Cairo, and Egyptian excavations of the past, which take Carrefax's adventures up to 1922. C for crypts. C for the 'clickety-clack of the reporters' Coronas' [305]. C for cyst, which becomes infected and finishes our hero off.

C for code. McCarthy's novel for the rather facile pleasures of decoding. The sudoko-style fun of filling out an allusion to Eliot's Waste Land here, to Joyce's Ulysses there, until the entire grid is chocka and we look and think: 'ah! Modernism!' McCarthy has talked about this, in interview ('the task for contemporary literature is to deal with the legacy of modernism. I'm not trying to be modernist, but to navigate the wreckage of that project'); and this novel, however stimulating it is -- and in places it is thrillingly so -- this novel is a fundamentally antiquarian exercise, like writing rhyming couplets in Chaucerian English about Pardoners. The moment of Modernism, even as shrapnel, does not have the contemporary penetration McCarthy seems to think it does. Put it this way: this is a novel about machines, and the best way to write about machines is not in the tradition of Marinetti, but in the tradition of Wells; which is to say, SF is better at doing this stuff than literary modernism. One eminent London University professor, author of an outstanding history of Science Fiction (his study that sees the genre as a C20th response to the cultural machinic) has claimed the novel for SF. I can see why: it stands as a perfect illustration of his thesis about the genre. But there is a fakeness about McC's Modernism -- not necessarily a bad thing, of course; but rather undermining. I didn't really believe it.

C for Cod-ernism.

C is an odd letter, pronounciation-wise, at least in English: ambiguous between 'K' and 'S': between on the one hand: Simeon (Serge's Dad), silk, sex, sister, suicide, static, swingers, seances, sonic smudges -- and on the other, knowledge. In one of the book's standout scenes, Serge's plane dogfights with what (we can deduce) is Ltnd R 'Fritz' Kempf's Fokker triplane, one of Baron von Richthofen's 'Flying Circus' Jagdgeschwader 1 planes: 'the lower wing has words painted across it, Serge can't make the words out, but he can see some of their letters, there's a K, an m, a c ...' [172] Only when his pilot is killed and his plane is tumbling out of the sky does Serge decode this:
One of the plane's wings snaps; the machine lists to the side as the landscape below it starts elevating. As the smoke clouds rises up to meet them, the Albatross looms once more into Serge's vision. It hvers above them, the one bright object in the darkened sky, the phrase written across its lower wing now finally legible. Painted in black, Gothic script on a red background, it reads:
Kennscht mi noch?
The phrase stays with him as the sky falls away. [173]
This means 'do you still remember me?' or 'do you ken me, still?' It comes back to Serge as he is about to be shot as a spy -- death, in other words, it is death that we try to forget, but which we always ken, that is never beyond our ken. And which constitutes Carrefax's last words:
[his] throat contracts three or four times in quick succession, making a repeated clicking sound, a set of quick-fire c-c-c-c's. It does this every time, with a strange regularity: "sssssss, c-c-c-c; sssssss, c-c-c-c; sssssss, c-c-c-c ..." [310]
This is an intermittently powerful piece of fiction. Some of the set pieces are very good indeed: several of the World War I scenes, the postwar seance, some of the Egyptian stuff at the end. And its overall vibe is C for Cool; intellectually wide-ranging and provoking, pretentious in the best way. But quite a lot of it is weak, and some of it is C for Crap. The early sections, for instance, seemed to me really quite c-for-clumsily handled. McCarthy's grasp of the architectonics of novel writing are rudimentary (he may feel that an overt committment to the formal experimentation of Modernism excuses him, of course). Two bigger problems, I thought. One is that the C-for-cypher element of the novel's title becomes, at 300+ pages, frankly tiresomely. See how annoying it is in this review? Imagine it extended throughout a whole novel. Carrefax likes to have sex with women from behind, with them curled over ... why this preference, except to literalise the C-curve of the novel's name?

The other bigger problem is that the book is not well written. People sometimes think that bad writing exists only on one axis: the Dan Brown scale of incompetence of expression (my favourite example of this is from Robert Ludlum: 'his eyes slid down her dress'. Imagine the sort of authorial imagination that could write such a sentence!) McCarthy, very clearly, doesn't write badly like that. Not at all. He writes badly like this:
Arriving back from flights, they [the pilots] stumble from their machines with the effects of acceleration and deceleration, of ungradated transit through modes of gravity alternatively positive and negative, sculpted into open mouths, sucked-in cheeks and swollen tongues that they present to the airfield's personnel for the next few hours. [161]
His style is ostentatiously sub-Pynchon; but it turns out that's a bow of Ulysses very very few writers can string.

My copy of the book carries a back-cover endorsement from the Observer: 'McCarthy is ... a master craftsman who is steering the contemporary novel towards exciting territories'. Steering it back to Wyndham Lewis, conceivably. I'm not sure that's the direction we should be going. This didn't seem to me a novel with any useful through-line. C for Cul-de-sac.

Still, in sum: this may be the best novel on the shortlist. For all its blots and longeurs, it's much better than Jacobson's Finkler Question.

1 comment:

Martin said...

Carrefax likes to have sex with women from behind, with them curled over ... why this preference, except to literalise the C-curve of the novel's name?

His first sexual experience is watching his biological father have sex with his sister from behind. Not to say that this itself isn't there to literalise the C-curve but there is still a reason given for his fetish.