Monday, November 22, 2010

C, by Tom McCarthy: Literary Is As Literary Does

Remember the mid-'90s tune "Everything Zen" by Bush? Remember how everyone loved the song 'cause it  rocked, but no one had any idea what it was really about because the lyrics are a goofy mess of seemingly unrelated phrases and ideas? That's kind of how I felt about Tom McCarthy's uber-literary, Man Booker-shortlisted novel C.

There's a pretty straightforward story here that I enjoyed strictly on a "beat and rhythm" level. And then there's what it really means. McCarthy creates a laundry list of themes, images and ideas that recur throughout the novel. The meaning of these in terms of how they fit together and complement each other and the story holistically is frequently tough to decipher.

The story is Serge Carrefax's, who is born to English wealth right before the turn of the 20th century. Serge's father runs a school to teach deaf children to talk and experiments with various wireless communication technologies, and so Serge becomes infatuated with the burgeoning field of radio from an early age. He fights in World War I as a navigator, parties in post-war London and then moves on to Egypt to scout locations for new communications ventures.

Serge is a bit of an odd ball. He finds out early in his life during an art class that he "just can't do perspective: everything he paints is flat." And Serge's lack of perspective — in the broader sense of the phrase — is a cornerstone of the story. Serge is an impartial observer to his own life. In fact, oftentimes, the reader is left to form his/her own conclusions about things Serge tells us about, but doesn't understand or doesn't care enough about to explain more fully. Is that his sister he sees having sex in an early scene in the novel? Or is it something else he's describing? It's hard to tell.

The novel also has its own unconventional logic and rules, which McCarthy uses to pack in his list of tropes and tricks. For instance, he'll mention something seemingly inconsequential at the time, only to have the idea re-emerge later in a more symbolic context. Serge and some of his fellow soldiers discuss free will vs. determinism, and then soon after, they're building a tunnel to nowhere and no one is in charge of its construction. The effect is disorienting — it's hard to figure out which instance is the one McCarthy intends you to decode and add to the meaning of the story.  And then there is the recurrence of several images and themes: Insects, wireless communication, descriptions of shapes and geometry, and drugs all flit in and out of the novel. What do they all mean? 

C is not difficult, as some reviewers have purported. But extracting meaning might be. You constantly feel like you're missing something or left out of a joke or not understanding a reference. And that can make reading frustrating at times. There's so much going on here, it's obviously a novel meant to be read several times — like a Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch film is meant to be viewed several times to pick up a little more each time. The story's interesting, but I'm not sure it's enough of a draw to get me to read again. So, three out of five stars for C.


  1. Just another bit of evidence supporting my theory that the Booker judges are on psychadelic shrooms...

  2. I have yet to have a really great experience with a Booker short-listed book. I have "Room" in my to-read pile at the moment, hoping that will break the trend!

  3. I'm so happy to find there's sanity in the world of bookish people and this book!! I have looked at this book several times. I pick it up because the cover's so intriguing and booklists keep touting it and Bookier loves it...I read a bit of this and that...I shake my head hoping to jog and jab my brain that suddenly seemed to seize up on me...and I put the book down like I was just struck by retardation!! I'm feeling so much better having read your reasonable and rational review.
    Thanks so much!
    Your Bookish Dame~~Deb

  4. Hmmm.... I think I will still give it a go. I find that often literary fiction is like that. You can read it without a problem - but you can't help but wonder what it all means. I felt very much like that when I finished The Satanic Verses by Salman Rusdhie. I knew what I had read and didn't have a problem reading it, but I felt like I was missing something.

    Anyway, I am glad that I read this review so that I know what I am in for when I read the book.

  5. @Sandy - You may be on to something there.

    @Sam - Room may change your experience - it is fantastic!

    @Deborah - I had the same experience, picking it up at bookstores and looking it over, scouring the Internet for reviews, but never pulling the trigger. Until I did - I slipped it in at the last minute on the tail end of a huge book order. So that made it easier. I'm glad I read it, just to introduce myself to a new style and new, clearly very talented writer. It's worth reading for that alone.

    @Becky - You're right, of course. Good literary fiction always has more to it than meets the immediate eye. But with C, the literary devices and McCarthy's tricks take a pretty clear front seat — almost to be sure that you know that you're missing something. ;)

  6. I really agree with the feeling that you are missing something when you read C. I'm sure there were plenty of references I just missed completely.
    C review