Tom McCarthy's C shows the future of fiction.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 13 2010 10:03 AM

What Is the Future of Avant-Garde Fiction?

Read Tom McCarthy's C and find out.

(Continued from Page 1)

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."

Advertisement

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."

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Alabama’s Insane New Abortion Law Gives Fetuses Lawyers and Puts Teenage Girls on Trial

Tattoo Parlors Have Become a Great Investment

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

Big Problems With the Secret Service Were Reported Last Year. Nobody Cared.

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 2 2014 12:58 PM Why Can’t States Do More to Protect Patients From Surprise Medical Bills? It’s complicated.
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 2 2014 11:07 AM Mapping 1890 Manhattan's Crazy-Quilt of Immigrant Neighborhoods
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 2 2014 12:37 PM St. Louis Study Confirms That IUDs Are the Key to Lowering Teen Pregnancy Rates
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 2 2014 1:01 PM Watch Pixar’s First Trailer for Inside Out
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 2 2014 12:56 PM My Year Without Flying I’ve stayed on the ground, to help fight climate change. Here’s what happened.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 2 2014 12:53 PM The Panic Virus How public health officials are keeping Americans calm about the Ebola threat.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?