Wednesday, 30 October 2013

C [tom mccarthy]

McCarthy's first novel dazzled. It took the nouveau roman, transposed it to Brixton, adorned it with a British sensibility and kicked some much needed life into the Anglo-Saxon novel. This is his follow-up. Where Remainder appeared to use Robbe Grillet as a model, here the predominant inspiration would appear to be Pynchon. So much so that C sometimes feels like a homage, to the similarly named V, or Gravity's Rainbow. Both in it's account of an unlikely hero traipsing across wartorn Europe and its relentless present tense.

There are worse writers to whom one might choose to pay homage. But C feels as though it is so self-consciously stepping into another’s footsteps that it never quite acquires an identity of its own. Instead, this feels like a book self-consciously in search of its raison d’etre.

There are frequent passages where the research is evident (into the life of a WW1 pilot, or post-war Egypt, for example), but all the research in the world cannot make C run. Whilst apparently a fractured narrative, skipping across the first decades of the 20th C in a series of precise chapters, its shape is clearly defined, tied as it is to the life of the book's protagonist, Serge Carrefax. Carrefax is something of an emotional vacuum, for reasons the reader understands, (his odd upbringing, his sister's suicide), but the fact that we understand doesn't help to make him interesting. Serge is a nerd whom the novel sometimes likes to suggest is on a covert mission through the semiotic warren of modern consciousness. He further he goes, the less interesting this becomes. Which might mean that his mission is a failure, or it might mean that the modern consciousness is fundamentally tedious.

As a result, C flatters to deceive, constantly hinting at hidden depths which are never plumbed. The same has probably been said of Gravity's Rainbow, only... one cannot say it with complete conviction. The Rainbow is so sprawling, so all-encompassing, that it might just contain the secret of the universe lodged within it. Which cannot be said for C. There are no hidden secrets. Serge listens to the airwaves in expectation but nothing arrives. The book has the feel of a shaggy dog story which gives itself away far too early.

Remainder suggested that McCarthy might be capable of redeeming the British novel, endowing it with what might be termed a European sensibility, welding playfulness to the prosaic glories of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. A detour via Pynchon is not such a bad way to go. But C feels like a staging post rather than a destination. It's a book which seems to be constantly searching for a reason to exist. The punchline, that it doesn't have one, does not quite convince. 

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