What Is the Future of Avant-Garde Fiction?
Read Tom McCarthy's C and find out.
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."
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.