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.")