The Lure of Realism

Tom McCarthy’s last book was an unconventional cult hit, but his new novel turns toward realism and delivers a great story and writing, says Taylor Antrim.

09.08.10 10:36 PM ET

Talk about pressure. Zadie Smith heralds you as the flag bearer for the Anglophone Novel. Your strenuously odd 2005 debut Remainder is “one of the great English novels of the past 10 years,” she writes in the New York Review of Books, and certainly way better than Joseph O’Neill’s celebrated Netherland, which she disparages as “perfectly done.” Remainder isn’t perfectly done, the characters have no psychological depth, and there aren’t any pretty sentences to quote. That’s the point! Remainder is an antidote to staid, dead-end, lyrical realism. Your name is Tom McCarthy and you’ve got equal parts Samuel Beckett, David Lynch, and Marcel Duchamp in your avant-garde blood.

Yikes! What are you going to write next? Better not try lyrical realism…

Well, I wouldn’t go that far in describing McCarthy’s fascinating new novel (actually his third; a second was published in the U.K. before Remainder caught fire), but C is not nearly as arid and clinical as Remainder was, and in moments it offers conventional novelistic pleasures. It even flirts with psychological depth, and doesn’t skimp on the pretty sentences.

C. By Tom McCarthy. 320 pages. Knopf. $25.95.

C is also pretty weird—and can be intermittently tedious. McCarthy claims to read no contemporary fiction and is still, according to his author’s note, the general secretary of the International Necronautical Society, “a semi-fictitious avant-garde network.” (Smith gamely summarizes the society’s philosophical position in her essay—and makes the whole thing sound, intentionally or not, like an excruciatingly boring intellectual prank.)  With C he’s having it both ways: aiming to satisfy middlebrow readers (me!), all the while confirming his experimentalist bona fides. You can read the novel as a picaresque turn-of-the-century bildungsroman or puzzle over it, grad-student style, as a braid of recurring motifs: light and dark, surface and depth, the allure of pure geometry vs. the undertow of human muck. You can even, if you’re so inclined, keep track of McCarthy’s dogged use of words that begin with the letter C.

The story: Serge Carrefax is born on an English country estate just before the turn of the century. His eccentric father runs a school for deaf children and is obsessed with wireless telegraph technology. With the proper modifications, he believes his deaf pupils, like his beloved telegraph, should be able to communicate. “Speech,” Simeon declares, “is but the mechanical result of certain adjustments of the vocal organs.” But Serge’s coming-of-age will be a lesson in the opposite truth: Life is not mechanical. It is grubby, fecund, resolutely organic—and more often that not, scatological and perverse. Serge’s first erotic experience is with his sister; after she commits suicide, he has a vision involving flies and sheep dung at her funeral and gets an erection. He learns to net Morse Code out of the air with a receiver—an appealingly bodiless hobby—but is brought back to earth by severe constipation, for which he’s treated in a German spa town. Next he’s flying high above World War I’s carnage in a bomber—and then getting shot down, digging tunnels with his fellow prisoners, and masturbating while he’s underground. He’ll study architecture after the war, work in British intelligence in Egypt, but meet his end having raucous sex on a bed of human remains in an ancient tomb.

C is for me, a vast improvement over Remainder, and McCarthy’s next novel, I’d wager, will be better still.

The novel’s metaphors are controlled and coherent, the set pieces amusingly ribald, and the novel teems with Joycean language play. It is also, in places, unabashedly lyrical; notice the gorgeous cadences in this description of Serge tuning static through his radio receiver: “It’s like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush. Each night, when Serge drops in on it, it recoils with a wail, then rolls back in crackling waves that carry him away, all rudderless, until his finger, nudging at the dial, can get some traction on it all, some sort of leeway. The first stretches are angry, plaintive, sad…” Or this description of artillery at night: “For a moment, the flickering stops and the whole countryside falls silent. A calcium flare descends noiselessly not far away, silhouetting the poplars and rimming their leaves with frozen light, as though with hoarfrost. Behind it other, smaller lights glow on and off, like fireflies. Then their pops arrive, then louder stutters, then high, booming eruptions: sounds and lights meshing together as the air comes back to life, like a magnificent engine warming up.”

I was impressed by C, but after an immersive start the last half of the novel took me the better part of a week to get through. My problem was one Zadie Smith might shake her head at: Serge isn’t much of a character. In the early chapters, you sense his longing for warmth and connection—but as the novel progresses Serge flattens out, becomes more of a literary construction than a human being. Smith’s essay argues that this is what McCarthy is up to; he eschews psychological dimension and other realist conventions to reflect back at us our partial knowledge of the world and “to shake the novel out of its present complacency.” But I kept feeling that beneath its relentless metaphors and word play, C is, at its heart, a conventional book: How else to account for its flashes of piercing sadness, its blocks of lovely prose, the very things that Smith criticized in Netherland? (A novel I loved, by the way.) C is for me, a vast improvement over Remainder, and McCarthy’s next novel, I’d wager, will be better still. And if it’s more conventionally realist, which I suspect it will be, will that make him any less the flag bearer for the future of the form? I say: Who cares? I say: Let’s take some pressure off the guy.

Plus:  Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles, authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.