What Is the Future of Avant-Garde Fiction?

Read Tom McCarthy’s C and find out.

Certain books, like certain heroes in books, arrive in the world haloed with great expectations. They cannot simply be good or bad; to pass judgment on them is to judge a whole way of writing and thinking. Thus Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom, is being appraised not just as a novel, but as a test case for the survival of the realistic novel, of the ability of the socially aware novelist to capture the imagination of the society he writes about. In the eyes of a smaller but probably even more enthusiastic readership, Tom McCarthy is a writer of destiny in this sense, but the destiny he represents is the opposite of Franzen’s. He is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel, of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur. In an influential review of McCarthy’s previous novel, Remainder,Zadie Smith wrote that McCarthy “clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.”

Now comes C, McCarthy’s new novel, the book that is supposed to show us the future of fiction. And here is how it begins: “Dr. Learmont, newly appointed general practitioner for the districts of West Masedown and New Eliry, rocks and jolts on the front seat of a trap as it descends the lightly sloping path of Versoie House.” It is a wonderfully canny move on McCarthy’s part. How does an experimental novelist surprise his admirers, whose appetite for the new buffers them against any possible surprise? He writes a Victorian pastiche—a sentence of the kind that Virginia Woolf already declared out-dated in the 1910s.

In fact, C, which follows the life of a young Englishman named Serge Carrefax from his birth in the 1890s until the 1920s, is set in just the period when, according to Woolf, human character changed. This is the golden age of the avant-garde, of futurism and modernism, and it provides McCarthy with an answer to the problem of how to write an avant-garde novel today. If modernism is history–in both senses of the world–then the modernist novel must be a historical novel, a deliberate reconstruction of a world and a way of thinking that are no longer our own. And that is what C is, at bottom: a brilliant historical novel, packed with the kind of information that is such novels’ stock-in-trade. What was it like, for instance, to use a primitive radio set?

The transmitter itself is made of standard brass, a four-inch tapper arm keeping Serge’s finger a safe distance from the spark gap. … Tonight, as on most nights, he starts out local, sweeping from two hundred and fifty to four hundred metres. It’s the usual traffic: CQ signals from experimental wireless stations in Masedown and Eliry, tapping out their call signs and then slipping into Q-code once another bug’s responded.

There is a great deal of such sheer fact in C, not just about radios, but about combat aviation in World War I, Egyptian burial practices, the cultivation of silkworms, and on and on. And just as the heroine of the classic bodice-ripper Forever Amber is conveniently on hand for all the major historical events of Restoration England—the Great Fire of London, the black plague—so Serge matters less as a character than as a lens, to be passed over a series of historical dioramas. Through Serge’s eyes, we see his father’s school for deaf children, where he grows up; a health resort in Central Europe; the Western Front; postwar London; and finally colonial Egypt. It doesn’t really matter, for McCarthy’s purposes, that Serge has no depth or development as a character and responds to everything with the same slightly anesthetized curiosity. As McCarthy showed in Remainder, he is not interested in psychology, but in phenomenology. He is at his best when he writes in revelatory, estranging detail about the way things look, feel, sound, work.

At the same time, McCarthy is also an expert parodist. In his witty, mock-Barthesian study, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, he kept a totally straight face while applying the tools of deconstruction to Hergé’s adventure comics, and in C he glories in the artificiality, the allusiveness, of his writing. Serge Carrefax is born with a caul, like David Copperfield. He spends the period just before World War I in a sanatorium, like Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain; but while Mann’s patients were tubercular, McCarthy’s suffer from constipation, and they wander the grounds carrying jugs of their own feces. (“The matter inside is solid, liquorice-black, with an undulating surface in whose folds and creases small reserves of dark red moisture have collected.”)

After the war, Serge returns to the London of “The Waste Land.” When he sleeps with a chorus girl, McCarthy fills the scene with echoes of the “young man carbuncular” episode from Eliot’s poem. Are there also echoes, in this section’s druggy parties, of Dorothy Sayers’s interwar mystery novel, Murder Must Advertise? Hard to say, but I wouldn’t rule it out; and in any case, guessing wrong is part of the fun of this sort of literary game. Certainly the novel’s last section wants us to think of Cavafy and Forster, who spent the war years in Alexandria. (There’s even a character named Morgan.)

If all this feels like a kind of code-breaking, that is just what McCarthy intends, since C is a novel obsessed with codes and connections. Like Thomas Pynchon, to whom he is deeply indebted (the title C is an homage to V, and the book’s continent-hopping parodies are a more successful version of what Pynchon did in Against the Day), McCarthy believes that the 20th century ushered in a paranoid age, that we are ruled and ensnared by our technology. When Serge’s father experiments with primitive radio waves, McCarthy gestures toward the birth of the Internet: One day, he rants, “there’ll be a web around the world for them to send their signals down.”

This kind of unabashed anachronism marks the difference between C and an ordinary historical novel. McCarthy is not trying to imagine what it felt like to live in the past. Rather, he is reimagining the past as a prologue to our encoded, networked present. Whenever McCarthy gets going on the subject of codes, in fact, the novel shifts into a kind of monomaniacal insistence: “He starts seeing all of London’s surfaces and happenings as potentially encrypted: street signage, chalk-marks scrawled on walls, phrases on newspaper vendors’ stalls. …”

This kind of thing has given McCarthy the kind of cutting-edge reputation he wants, as surely as Franzen wants mainstream acclaim. But what really justifies this rather pretentious theoretical obsession is that it gives McCarthy the permission he seems to needto write beautiful descriptive prose like this vision of air combat in World War I: “At one point a howitzer shell appears right beside them, travelling in the same direction—one of their own, surfacing above the smoke-bank like a porpoise swimming alongside a ship, slowly rotating in the air to show its underbelly as it hovers at its peak before beginning its descent.” This sort of closely imagined visual detailis what makes C genuinely exciting to read, despite its lack of interest in plot and character. It’s enough to make you suspect that what “C” really stands for is not code, connection, cocaine, Carrefax, or any of the other hints the novel dangles, but the oldest of all fictional imperatives: “See.”

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