Thursday, January 6, 2011


Well, I read it, but I am not sure what to think.  For one thing, on the surface, it feels as though it couldn't possibly be written by the same guy.  But then again, there's no one else who could have written it.  It is, like Remainder, a strange book masquerading as a normal one.  Both books are about connections, metaphors, and the power of the mind to create its own worlds.  Both contain the smell of cordite, and narrators who fall into trances and mishear what other people are saying.

C is an episodic bildungsroman about Serge Carrefax, son of the founder of a school for the deaf, brother of a suicide, casual scientist, possible sociopath.  The episodes in question are variations on a theme, or rather on themes: networks, communication, the complexity and interplay among various human endeavors.  There is no plot, other than the wandering course of Serge's life: idyllic childhood, tragic loss, strange illness, war experience, fateful research trip.  What happens here isn't the point, though--the theme is what it's all about, and everything is about the theme.

McCarthy is riffing here, in other words.  This is something he can do--the writing is spectacular, for the most part.  The novel is spilling over with historical research about the technology of the early twentieth century; characters routinely predict the future of communication here, or traffic in the kind of metaphors we use today to describe computers and the internet.  The characters are, in the end, entirely subservient to these ideas and historical details; they're performers putting on a play about what Tom McCarthy is interested in.  (And yes--there is a play within this play, a pageant performed by the deaf chilrden who, in one of the book's central ironies, can't hear themselves speak.)

This might sound cold and pretentious; in fact the book is, at times, utterly absorbing and quite moving.  Certain scenes are evoked with uncanny beauty, as when the child Serge witnesses a sexual tryst that will color his erotic experiences for the rest of his life; or when his plane crashes in no man's land, and a plague of birds arrives to peck at the blasted remains of his compatriots; or when he and a lover screw upon a pile of mummies.  But the mode of writing is detached; point of view is fluid, and one feels as though the book does not belong to the characters, but to the writer and reader.

I never fully owned it, personally.  The last section is a true disappointment--it consists almost entirely of expository dialogue, and ends in a delirious virtuoso recapitulation of every symbol and metaphor in the novel--but nevertheless has a certain mad rigor.  It's impressively bizarre and not really successful, like most things that I admire.  I recommend the book with reservations, but have reservations about my reservations.  I will most certainly read the next one, and all the ones after that.


Hugo Minor said...

The day this book came out was full of anticipation. I thought about it all day at work, and then in the evening I went to the bookstore and selected which one would be mine from the stack. The book jacket was amazing, and all the red C's highlighted on the flap were the first thing I read. At home, I explored the book, and loved how each chapter was divided into sections with Roman numerals. I started reading it. It had me hooked for a long time, probably until he was flying planes, and then I put the book down.

It didn't meet my expectations and anticipation, and that's probably my own fault. I did enjoy parts of it (I think my favorite is exposing the scam with the flipping table). I still don't know what I think. I didn't think the writing was spectacular, though. I had hoped for a little more...cleverness, perhaps?

When I went to his reading, I wanted to ask about the structure of the book, but the museum (where the reading was held) was a terrible host. The museum's representative talked about herself for over 10 minutes, and an art critic who interviewed McCarthy in front of the audience (we had to sit on little camping chairs for asses the size of toddlers) talked about her feelings and her cat for so long they only took a couple of audience questions. He talked about his research of Freud's Wolf Man, and how Nabokov's Ada was a huge influence. (Then they said if you didn't buy the book at the museum you had to wait to get your book signed. This museum needs to learn book-reading etiquette.)

I say all this to make the point that all of this anticipation and frustration and moments of excitement are tied to my feelings about the book. My memories of it include the lists of descriptions, the coldness and indifference to many events, and the conker trees.

Anyway, here is the best review of the book I have read:

jrlennon said...

Thanks so much! I'm definitely going to go read that review later...but I wanted to say that the book began going south for me precisely during the tilting-table scene. That scene is so funny and nicely put together, but it seems wildly implausible to me, to the point of slapstick. Not that I dislike implausibility--Remainder is steeped in it. But it didn't fit the rules the book had established for itself. Nobody, of course, would have let him meticulously type out all those words while shrugging and slowly panicking, and a riot would not break out--it was so odd that I thought it might actually be a drug-induced hallucination.

I felt as though that was the moment some part of McCarthy realized he didn't really have a book on his hands, just a (very fine) assemblage of scenes and ideas.

jrlennon said...

Wow, you are right, that review is superb. Thanks a lot!

Anonymous said...

Don't you think C. would be pretty incomprehensible if you hadn't read Remainder? That, to me, was one of its major flaws. I was engrossed by it, but ultimately baffled by McCarty's toe-dip into historical realism.

Michael Garberich said...

Just wrapped up a couple very disappointing days with Rivka Galchen's "Atmospheric Disturbances." Moving on to McCarthy's "Remainder" (and then maybe "C"). Can it really be as good as so many here at W6 say it is? Well, anyway, I'm excited.

Nicholas said...

Thanks for posting this review, John. I agree that the final section is the weakest, though I immensely enjoyed the last several pages. I guess my penchant for Pynchon paved the way toward really liking C in general, though, and I do think that McCarthy has taken a few cues from the likes of Gravity's Rainbow and Against the Day. It's a collage, but it's a damn good one. I'm reading Pnin right now, and I have similar feelings about both books.