The Year of Reading Dangerously: Tom McCarthy

Just over one year ago I was sitting in one of the smaller tents at the Edinburgh International Book Festival listening to Tom McCarthy discuss his new novel, C, with Stuart Kelly. Unusually, I hadn’t read the novel, or either of McCarthy’s previous two novels, but had bought a ticket purely on the strength of what I had read about him, despite the fact that this had not yet driven me to read a single word he had written. As a discussion of literature, it ranks among the best that I have ever witnessed at the festival, and it was one of the reasons that I decided to spend a year reading more experimental fiction, having still not opened C or the copy of Remainder I had also acquired by the end of the year. Ironically, that very decision delayed my reading further (I almost considered leaving it until the end of this year), but eventually I decided that enough was enough and, having by now largely forgotten the overwhelming and rather intimidating nature of the philosophising last August, dusted off my copy and began.

My disappointment, therefore, will come as no surprise. The first disappointment is that C reads, superficially, very much like a traditional novel. It has a central character, Serge Carrefax, whom we first meet at his birth, follow through childhood and adolescence into adulthood, and leave fatally ill at the novel’s end. He even has a rather picaresque life: an eccentric father and mother; a strange sister who kills herself; participation in World War One; drug addiction; and a secret mission which takes him to the ancient tombs of Egypt. Of all the ‘c’s that McCarthy is interested in, however, character isn’t one of them: Serge remains flat and unconvincing throughout, eliciting no empathy from the reader. Of course, this is deliberate – McCarthy signals his intentions when he describes Serge’s inability to develop perspective in his drawing:

“Serge just can’t do it: his perceptual apparatuses refuse point blank to be twisted into the requisite configuration. He sees things flat; he paints things flat. Objects, figures, landscapes: flat.”

As an aerial observer during the First World War he relishes his viewpoint of the world, a map laid flat below him. (I am reminded of Alasdair Gray’s description of Duncan Thaw’s aim in his painting to describe his own ambition in Lanark. It’s interesting in itself that Thaw is a painter and Serge an engineer; McCarthy even includes a painter in this section who bemoans he simply can’t paint what he sees from a plane.)

Serge, therefore, is not a character in the traditional sense; according to Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books:

“…he’s a convergence, or rather an area of concentration where ideas, images, words, preoccupations gather and regroup.”

McCarthy telegraphs his interests from the novel’s opening pages where Serge’s father is more concerned about the arrival of the equipment he needs for his wireless experiments than the birth of his son – perhaps making equally clear the writer’s priorities. Communication is the ‘c’ that we return to again and again. Not only the wireless which punctuates the entire novel, but the school for deaf children his father runs, the séances, the inscriptions on the Egyptian tombs – for this is communication across both time and space. It’s no surprise that the final scene in the novel is not Serge dying in his cabin as he sails for Egypt back to England, but the ship’s wireless room, followed by a final paragraph describing the ship’s wake “etched out across the water’s surface” seeming as much a metaphor for radio signals as Serge’s life.

The other ‘c’ which McCarthy is clearly interested in is cleverness, which I do not mean uncharitably. Cleverness, in this anti-intellectual age, is to be cherished, but my second disappointment was in just how much C needs the reader to be clever for it to be worthwhile. Of course, this is partly a disappointment in myself, and all good novels reward a second reading. But great novels, even difficult ones like Ulysses (and much has been made of C finishing in 1922 when Ulysses was published) demand a second reading through engagement as well as puzzlement.

Danger rating: reading C can feel a little like watching one of annual enactments of Greek myths performed by the children at Serge’s father’s school: worthy and clever but to be admired rather than loved.

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2 Responses to “C”

  1. brian morris Says:

    spot-on. couldn’t agree more. i loved ‘remainder”, hated C. cheers!

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