52 in 52 / Longs. / Word.

Book Review – Tom McCarthy’s C

I’m only four weeks in and already the 52-books-in-52-weeks project is starting to get overwhelming. This beast of a novel didn’t help much. Tom McCarthy’s C (2010) is a doozy:

Let’s start off with the hype surrounding this book. Slate Magazine said it was “The Future of Fiction,” and The Guardian said it was “steeped in both high modernism and continental philosophy.” C (like Open City, which I reviewed a few weeks ago) is the sort of book that you’re more likely to find in a literature prof’s office than a beach or airport terminal. This, in my opinion, is not a positive trait.

Partitioned into four sections (Caul, Chute, Crash, and Call), this historical novel follows the adventures of Serge Carrefax. The setting, that of early 1900s Europe, allows the bizarre to become almost ubiquitous as we learn about everything from silkworm cultivation to the history of deaf education to colonial Egypt in painstakingly well-researched detail. Serge flies as an observer for the Royal Air Force during the First World War, a job which he takes about as seriously as he takes anything else in the novel (i.e. not at all):

“Narrative, Carrefax.” The recording officer, seated behind a table with a stack of papers at the hangar’s exit, stops him.

“What?” asks Serge, taking his glove off and wiping his hand across his face.

“Flight narrative for Corps HQQ. I have to remind you every time.”

“Oh,” says Serge. “Well…” His had has gathered a thick wedge of tar. He looks at it, then up at the recording officer. “We went up; we saw stuff; it was good.”

As a character, Serge is almost a zombie in this novel. He’s completely flat, and things just seem to happen to him in a very passive way. He doesn’t move. He is moved. The plot also has a real flat quality to it – it’s difficult to find a narrative thread that might pull the reader from one end to the other. But what McCarthy lacks in plot and character he makes up for with great prose and a phenomenal attention to detail. What I mean to say is that it’s post-modern as hell. Three hundred pages of present continuous verb tense should have been my first clue.

It’s hard to know what to say about a book that functions like this one. Do I care what happens to Serge? At no point in the novel. Am I interested in him as a character? There’s nothing to be interested in. Do I get tired of seeing proper nouns that start with the letter C cropping up every 2 pages. Of course. But that’s the type of reader I am. I don’t necessarily care at all about “the future of Avant-garde fiction” (someone should care about this by the way, because it sounds like it might be important). I gravitate toward bread and butter novels. You know, characters and plots and stuff – so this just wasn’t for me. At all.

Oh, there’s a scene where Serge does a bunch of blow then goes up in a plane and… chokes his chicken over the German trenches. None of the other (rave) reviews I’ve seen have mentioned this, but I can’t talk about the novel without mentioning it. That is probably the most illustrative difference between me and those other reviewers.

I give it one honorary literary criticism degree from Northwestern University (arbitrarily).

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