This is the first in a series of articles I plan on writing about books I’ve read recently. I read lots of bits and pieces so thought it would be worthwhile to record my thoughts on them! Enjoy…
I engulfed Tom McCarthy’s C. The words not the physical object.
I have to say that I disagree with The Guardian’s diatribe that “C is a 1960s-style anti-novel that’s fundamentally hostile to the notion of character and dramatises, or encodes, a set of ideas concerning subjectivity”. McCarthy is lambasted in some circles for being “difficult” and for some, pretentious. Based on C alone, I feel that this is undeserved cynicism. I read much of the “anti-novel” comments about the book prior to reading it and various character pieces on Tom McCarthy alone, but I didn’t want to focus too much on this kind of noise, as I was intrigued to read him after seeing him lumped together in the ‘Experimental’ bracket along with Stewart Home, BS Johnson and Lydia Davis; all authors I enjoy.
Upon finishing the book, I wondered if we had been reading the same book- yes, it’s vastly referential and straddles concepts such as modernism and subjectivity, all without pausing to allow the reader to take breath. But I feel that such comments are unfair on C and down-play or try to detract from the fantastic writing on offer here, and whilst I had breaks from the novel to ‘Wikipedia’ various references, it was never sneering or condescending. Often the criticism of McCarthy’s references reflects more on the critic than McCarthy himself.
At the heart of C is an often emotive and personal bildungsroman, which runs alongside the events of pre-war Europe via the story of Serge. The way his life unravels after the death of his sister, Sophie, much like the peace in Europe in the early 20th century, is powerful and we follow Serge through prison camps in Germany, the drug-riddled avant garde in London and eventually the ancient tombs of Egypt. But this is not some realist coming-of-age-story as McCarthy may try to pretend to be writing (the splitting of the book into four clear sections for example) Serge does not enjoy much sympathy from his creator, instead seemingly a vessel for McCarthy’s ideas and words, a transmitter or antenna perhaps to continue the radio-frequency/insects imagery. And whilst Serge may be a often distant figure, he is tragic enough to be engaging.
Whilst dense and complex, the imagery of transmissions and cryptic messages flow with a fluidity and command of language which is both impressive and challenging. Perhaps it is more telling of the current state of mainstream literature, that such books as C are deemed an “anti-novel”, when in reality, they strive for the complexity and depth that any novel should.