Saturday, September 25, 2010

Kennscht mi noch?

C, by Tom McCarthy, is a very demanding, very rewarding novel. It took me a couple weeks to read it (and more than another week to work up the courage to write something about it) — it demands your time and attention. If you want entertainment, I encourage you to read the other Booker Prize nominee I read earlier this year. That said, I think C (or at least aspects of it) will stay with me for a lifetime.

What it reminds me of
As I progressed through the novel, I was reminded of each of the following books to varying degrees and for quite possibly very superficial — but meaningful-to-me wrt the conversations my books have with each other (and me) — reasons:
  • AS Byatt, The Children's Book, for the time period, the focus on children's life in an atypical adult world, their games, the staging of a play riddled with symbolism;
  • Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (which I haven't finished reading, but), for the sanatorium setting, of course, but also a morbid fascination with all manner of effluvia, and there's this scene with the x-ray (although where Hans sees his mortality and his eventual inanimate state, Serge sees something organic and primordial), and also, a humorous but enigmatic tone, trying to figure out the workings of the place;
  • this tone segues very nicely into that section that reminds me of EE Cummings, The Enormous Room, what with the war experience, and the maneuvers, the barracks, prison, the sense of camaraderie and loss;
  • Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations, for how the text gets scientifically physical and metaphysical, and sentences like "The restlessness, he comes to realise, is in truth an attempt to achieve its opposite: stasis." — something still and deep;
  • even Julian Barnes, Arthur & George, for the spiritualist aspect;
  • José Carlos Somoza, ZigZag, because of the idea of being able to tap the residual energy of Christ on the cross, to be able to see it, hear it;
  • Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault, for the Egyptian setting, similar concerns regarding authenticity;
  • Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, for obvious reasons.

I love all these books (well, maybe the Barnes not so much, but my point stands). I found it a strange sensation to be recalling them, or certain parts of them, while reading C, and so strongly too. I doubt that McCarthy had it in mind to emulate any of these. My point, though, is that there's something about McCarthy that feels intensely familiar to me. He speaks to me. He taps into those same moods or ideas that have captured me before.

What the C stands for
I'm not sure I like the idea that it can represent so many things: Carrefax, communication, Cairo, caul, crash, copper, connectivity, cocaine (with a C even placed in shop windows to indicate its availability). So many vague associations make it feel more like a cop-out of a title. There is a strong indication, relatively late in the book, that carbon is it. I hope McCarthy's the kind of writer who'd say, yes, C is for something in particular, yes, carbon. The basis of all life after all.

What it's about
This is what I get out of it: Situating yourself in time and space. Grounding yourself, even. Despite the fact that there's nothing to really ground yourself to. This whole world is one big dummy chamber.

I loved Remainder, and I admit to at first being someone disappointed to find that C was nothing like it. Only, that turned out not to be the case at all. The whole authenticity question is huge (to my mind), but it's not concerned with just some random guy; it's the whole state of our being, all humanity.

(Of all the books C reminds me of, the closest in theme and in tone is clearly Michaels' Winter Vault.

What I like about it
I love the wordplay. There is a lot of humour. There are some mind-bending meta-moments of awareness. I love the giant Monopoly-like game the children play, that grows from a board, to the grounds, into something purely abstract, extending over the ether. I love passages like this one:

Versoie seems smaller. Its proportions are the same: the surface area of the house's side-wall in relation to that of the Maze Garden above which it rises, or the width of the maze's paved path in relation to the garden's lawn; the height of the Crypt Park's obelisk-topped columns, or the sightline above these into the park itself afforded by attic window — all these are correct. But, taken as a whole, they seem to have shrunk. The left-swerving passage from the house's from door to the Low Lawn, then through the Lime Garden with its beehives and, beyond these, past the green slime-topped trough-pond towards the long, conker-tree-lined avenue that skirts the Apple Orchard as it heads towards the spinning sheds and Bodner's garden — a passage each of whose sections used to comprise a world, expansive beyond comprehension, filled with organic density and volume, with the possibilities of what might take place in it, riven with enclaves and proclivities every one of which itself comprised a world within the world, on to infinity — now seems like a small, inconsequential circuit: a transceiver loop or well-worn route round a familiar parade ground. It's as though, in Serge's absence, the whole estate had, by some sleight of hand, been substituted by a model, one into which he's now been reinserted, oversize, cumbersome and gauche...

Versoie seems smaller, and the world seems smaller, seems like a model of the world. It's not just that the distance between, say, here and Lydium has shrunk (and done so almost exponentially thanks to the motor car his father's purchased and now lets him drive whenever he feels like an outing), but, beyond that, that the inventory of potential experiences — situations in which he might find himself, conversations and interactions he might undergo — has dwindled so low that they could be itemised on a single sheet of paper. The exchanges he has in shops or in the post office, the movements and gestures these involve, seem so limited, so mapped out in advance, as to be predetermined — as though they'd already happened and were simply being re-enacted by two or more people who'd agreed to maintain the farcical pretence that this was something new and exciting. He's taken to walking out on the charade halfway through: stepping into, for example, the cheese shop, responding to the usual questions about how his parents or the Day School pupils are, agreeing how nice it is to be back after serving his country so bravely, admitting that the weather isn't quite doing what might be expected of it at this time of year, and so on — then, just as the shopkeeper shifts his stance above the rows of Lancashires and Stiltons and asks him what he'll have, turning round and pushing the door open, leaving its ting! hanging in the air behind him with the ruptured conversation. He once did this on three premises in a row — neighbouring ones: newsagent, baker, fishmonger — not out of maliciousness but simply to let it form a box around him which he could then step out of...

[I marvel over this phenomenon, how everything looks smaller when you go back. Somehow, a place, a house or a whole city shrinks as your experience expands. Plainly, it's actually physically smaller, but there's more to it in one's perception of a place. It changes how you interact with your space. It can take days to shake.]

Nice packaging!
Certainly nice enough to elicit a response from the designer guys around the office. They utter, "Nice," and "Neat," and pick it up and turn it over. And very excitedly I say, "I know! Check this out," and I open it up to exhibit the flaps, on which the text runs, gasp!, vertically, oriented perpendicular to the usual. And the page margins — the text starts a bit high on the page. I found this a bit distracting first — like why isn't this sort of thing standardized? — but I got over it. Anyway, neat how such little nothings can make you feel like you have something in your hands.

The Casual Optimist has a wonderful interview with the jacket designer, Peter Mendelsund, about how it came to be it and what it means and why it works.

Honestly, I find the cover kind of unsettling, but Mendelsund has me sold on what a perfect fit it is for the book. Also, reading the interview makes me feel pretty stupid, as a reader, as other levels of C are brought to light that I had no idea even existed.

What's so avant-garde about it
I have no idea. If anyone can explain this to me, why McCarthy and this book are being touted as the future of literature, please do. Don't get me wrong — I like it (a lot, even), I just don't see how any of this is new, or cutting-edge. Did you see my list of what it reminds me of? Others have done this before. There's a surreal ending that I can't quite place in terms of influence, or what it reminds me of — in fact, it's a good deal more "filmic" than literary (David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch?) — but that's all of, what?, 8 pages. The book's reputation can't fairly rest on that. Anti-realist anti-novel? (But it is realist (very much of the time), isn't it?) I can appreciate C's being Important, but how is it so out of the ordinary?

How about that ending?!
Can I say? [Possible spoiler alert.] What an immense release it was to find Sophie on the scene at the end! I mean, the whole book, since that first section, she was just hovering between the words, and I was certain she would make an appearance, or make herself felt, I mean in the sense that Serge would address the fact of her, as a memory or a story to tell someone, I kept waiting, she was always somehow present, with Tania, deep in the earth, in the air, with Cécile, at London parties, and at the seance. I think the writing's pretty awesome, that McCarthy could make her presence so palpable even though she's so absent, which makes the climax all so bloody climactic. Wow.

See also
Surplus Matter: a site dedicated to the work of Tom McCarthy
International Necronautical Society



Stefanie said...

I've had my eye on this since I first saw it in an ad somewhere. I am so glad that it is good! I'm definitely going to have to get myself a copy now.

Emily said...

I never knew there was a section in a sanatorium! Now I absolutely MUST read it - I have a thing for books set in hospitals and sanatoriums, and The Magic Mountain is, maybe not one of my FAVORITE books, but definitely up there for me.

And, ground breaking New Form or not, the rest sounds good too. Loved the passages you pulled, the evocation of that feeling that the world one is returning to has become a toy.

Maylin said...

Wow - what a great review and overview for yes, a very difficult novel to get your head around. I loved the comps you listed. You'll have to get around to McCarthy's second novel Men In Space which again, is completely different from either C or Remainder, but still has great scenes of humour and a memorable ending. I've just gotten a copy of his study of Tintin - he's really a remarkably intersting and original writer.