by Tom McCarthy
310 pages, Jonathan Cape Ltd
Review by Marc Nash
My second read from this year's Man Booker prize shortlist is "C" by Tom McCarthy. It wasn't all that long ago I reviewed his debut novel, which I picked up while eagerly awaiting the release of this book. I wasn't entirely convinced by that work as my review suggested. This is altogether a different beast.
"C" has been described as "experimental", "modernist" and even an "anti-novel". I don't believe it is any of these at all, though it is fundamentally ambitious and challenging.
It is actually rather conventional in structure, portraying a fictional but highly credible character, moving through a recognisable historical period. Both narrative and subjectivity are absolutely linear, in that it traces the 24 year life of Serge Carrefax, in chronological order, through four main stages of his life. The period he lives through, from 1898 to 1922, sees huge technological advances culminating in the First World War, Einstein's theories of relativity, Freud's psychoanalytical theories, Eliot's "The Wasteland" and Joyce's "Ulysses". Thus accordingly the novel is suffused with modernism, but as a study of it and its legacies, rather than a modernist work in itself. The writing is limpid and tight, and though there are allusions and references aplenty, with some modest plays on language, the ambition is in the book's scope rather than any gamut of intertextuality.
However I believe one has to acknowledge an earlier defining epistemological moment just prior to the novel's opening, when Nietzsche and others in the face of science and rationality pronounced God to be dead. With the divine Clockmaker removed, now comes the search for the hidden codes and logic underpinning the world and gluing our human existence together. Through Serge, McCarthy resolutely shows up man's flawed search to answer these questions and thereby depth charges any possibility of a humanist philosophy successfully replacing the theological. For, as voiced by an archeologist, "The mistake most of my contemporaries make is to assume that they're the first... that their moment of looking is somehow definitive, standing outside the long history of which it merely forms another chapter".
This is a conflict between the old and the new forces of modernity. A play staged alfresco at his father's school for the deaf, hints at the silver screen's imminent eclipse of the theatre by an insertion of a white sheet for projecting scenery upon. A war artist complains that the battlefield won't stand still long enough for his depictions, or that it is obscured by gas and cordite smoke, "how can you paint something when you can't even see what it is?" He is advised to photograph the scenes instead. On the one hand Serge takes the spa waters to clear up his intestinal problems, yet it is only a good seeing to by his earthy hunchback masseuse in a manner which Freud would heartily approve, which clears up both this symptom (probably provoked by the death of his older sister) and his viewing of the world as if through a membrane. To such an extent that he can join up with the nascent RAF as an aerial spotter in the Great War.
It is this second section of the novel during the War which is perhaps its strongest, both in terms of the interweave of motifs McCarthy deals in and in the reader getting inside Serge's character. He tries to replace the heavenly god with the distortions and shaping of space afforded to him by dog rolls and dives in the plane. By the flattening of the ground from his eerie, where armies of men look like ants and the trenches look like a labyrinth. But most significantly, by his desire to merge with the humming machinery and wires of his plane. The high death toll for airmen is something he welcomes, in his quest to embrace what he calls a "quickening". An unwitting Futurist man, indelibly tied to motorised machinery. But Serge cannot resonate with the periodicity of the machines, cannot match their frequency.
In addition to the new rhythms of machine-led pulsation, the novel considers the new architectural space, of pylons and subterranean cabling, man reaching for the sky and tunneling underground. Everything becomes a transmission, prefiguring the data overload of our current virtual world. The ancient Egyptian scarab amulet on which secrets were inscribed in order to disarm their gravity, "the scarab withholds the vital information even as it inscribes it?" underlies the book's drive. It's further concerned with encryption, trying to tease the meaning from seemingly chaotic signals, yet yielding only static interference, white noise, and a Babel of conflicting disembodied voices. In the post Great War world, French, British and Bolshevik agents and spies are trying to spin webs of deceit and intrigue to misdirect their rivals. Even Serge is unsure whether the mission he is charged with is genuine, or just some dummy activity. All information is to be monitored, just as every detail is logged and annotated on the archeological digs. But no one can differentiate the vital and the legitimate, from the false and the peripheral.
Insect imagery accompanies virtually every scene, be they flyers, burrowers or crawlers. And of course they too have antennae and buzz and drone like machinery. Their constant presence is both a litmus test for mankind's progress and a reminder that no matter how much we use technology to harness our environment, the creepy crawlies maintain their own humble adaptive pertinacity to also colonise the globe. When Serge overturns his car and is pinned underneath, he begs his rescuers not to remove his "carapace". This is akin to Kafka's cockroach in "Metamorphosis", only Serge has no layers of guilt or shame armouring him. Serge is trying to evolve into a future human, yet this early nod to cybernetics, like his earlier yen to fuse with the plane's fuselage, come to naught.
The book is undoubtedly a tour de force, but one that shows a real deftness of touch. It only stretches to 310 pages, where in other hands it would likely meander on towards 500+. It encapsulates a historical period economically, while inviting the reader to populate it with his own imagination, rather than leading us by the nose. It wears its erudition lightly as well. The strength of the novel is in its layering of symbols and motifs. Spun as finely as the silk Serge's mother has a cottage industry producing. The breadth of ideas displayed here are always handled by McCarthy in literary fashion, which is no mean feat, as in the hands of lesser authors, discursions would be made in order to handle bed them in. If the Man Booker Prize is for the 'best' novel, I really believe of the six shortlisted, this ought to be it.