C by Tom McCarthy

07/08/10, The Times

For someone who strayed in from the more esoteric fringe of the art-theory world and had his first novel, Remainder, first published by a tiny press in France in a print run of 750 copies, described by Zadie Smith in the NYRB as ‘one of the great English novels of the past ten years’, Tom McCarthy doesn’t seem to have done too badly. Now blue-eyed boy of a mainstream literary publisher, who are making a song-and-dance about his new novel, C, the avant-garde McCarthy finds himself co-opted by the establishment: C has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize a week ahead of its publication.

Set between the years 1898 and 1922, C is the story of Serge Carrefax, born on the estate of Versoie in Lydium in southern England, to a father who experiments with wireless and runs a school for the deaf-mute, and a mother who oversees the production and trading of silk from the estate. Serge’s older sister, Sophie, is obsessed with the natural world, especially with insects, while Serge grows up smitten by wireless and radio. A mysterious madness takes hold of Sophie and she kills herself by taking cyanide. The adolescent Serge journeys to an eastern European spa town, Klodebrady, to seek a cure for the black bile that seems to be blocking his insides and affecting his vision.

Cure effected, he is enlisted by his godfather, Widsun, into the RFC during the Great War as an ‘observer’: he becomes a wireless operator in spotter planes that fly over German territory. This section, titled ‘Chute’ – all four sections of the book have titles beginning with C – is the one where McCarthy’s inspiration from the Italian Futurist, Marinetti, and his ‘Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’ (1909), is at its most transparent and conspicuous. Serge aspires to the condition of machines, of becoming one with them. He finds flying an intensely erotic experience. It is at the war front that he develops a taste for both cocaine and heroin, a habit he pursues in London after the war is over. Then in 1922, Widsun packs him off to Egypt to compile reports on a potential Empire Wireless Chain that is being set up. And it is here, where the ancient and modern worlds rub up against each other, and a dizzying variety of cultures and histories collide, that McCarthy’s own vertiginous and dazzling work of occluded, unperceived affinities, begins to make those spectral connections apparent. Insects and incest; catacombs, crypts, encrypting; dead siblings; sex and death; patterns, micro and macro – all start coming together in this polyphonic echo chamber of a novel.

The word ‘experimental’ to describe this densely, exultantly imaginative book is being bandied about with great abandon and it is not only misleading but also wrong. Beckett’s prose work is experimental, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch is, the novels of BS Johnson are, Pale Fire makes the grade as does Kelman’s Translated Accounts; the defining feature of a truly experimental work is its form. While C is unquestionably brilliant, usefully denting the model of the psychological realism that is the dominant mode of our conservative times by its unique, disorientating glance at modernism, it is less experimental than its predecessor, Remainder, or any of the novels mentioned above. It takes no risks with form and structure, using the realist frame for its own subversive purposes. Instead, it’s the constant ripple of subterranean correspondences, the whispery yet omnipresent symphony of codes and signals that provides the matrix of the book, that kinks it into a new thing. He writes under the shadow of Ballard – there are allusions to both Crash and The Unlimited Dream Company – in his central theme of the hinge and overlap between subjectivity and technology while works of figures who belong to or are great influences on the modernist movement, such as Freud, provide its theoretical underpinnings. At times, the book diffracts Derrida, at others, early Barthes and Lacan; this is not only a deeply literary book, but also equally literate. I suspect it’ll keep critical theory geeks happily fishing in it for years.

In the heady triangulation between humans, technology and ciphers, C seems to be a pointer to one way in which all meaning is created: the selection of certain elements from an infinite set and then bracketing them off. The selection can be arbitrary, as systems of signification usually are, but who can deny the power, poetry and wit of C in its attempt to posit technology, particularly in its protean forms of signals and waves (wireless, radio, Morse), encryption, transmission, as one of those systems, like language, that creates the human? It is written in prose that is precise, radiant, approaching poetry repeatedly, with a sustained ease of transaction between the minute and the massive.

A kind of archaeology of modernism, C is truly modernist in its ludic nature, in the games it plays, both within the boundaries of its fictional world and also in the numerous conversations that that world sets up with discourses, texts and worlds outside it. It is an intensely deliberate act that the book’s end should come at 1922, the year of publication of two crucial modernist texts, The Waste Land and Ulysses; C inserts itself, slyly yet confidently, into the history of modernism. This is a genuinely exciting and spookily beautiful book, a new kind of joy.