I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature. For me, that’s what literature’s always done. If Shakespeare finds a good speech in an older version of Macbeth or Pliny, he just rips it and mixes it. It’s like DJing.
McCarthy’s new essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix” explores the idea of artist as DJ, as remixer, as synthesizer. It’s a brief, fun read—28 pages on paper the publicity materials claim, but it’s only available as an etext, so its length is hard to measure in terms of pages. It took me less than an hour to read it on my Kindle Fire. Then I read it again. Although publisher Vintage kindly sent me a copy, I’d argue that it’s well worth the two bucks they’re asking.
“Transmission” is playful and discursive, as befits its subject. The essay is not nearly as pretentious as its subtitle (“How Literature Works”) might suggest. McCarthy riffs on a few subjects to illustrate his thesis: Kraftwerk, the Orpheus myth (and its many, many retellings and interpretations), Rilke, Alexander Graham Bell, “Blanchot, Barthes, or any other dubious French character whose names starts with B,” Ulysses, Kafka, Beckett, etc. But what is his thesis? What does he want? He tells us:
My aim here, in this essay, is not to tell you something, but to make you listen: not to me, nor Beckett and Kafka, but to a set of signals that have been repeating, pulsing, modulating in the airspace of the novel, poem, play—in their lines, between them and around them—since each of these forms began. I want to make you listen to them, in the hope not that they’ll deliver up some hidden and decisive message, but rather that they’ll help attune your ear to the very pitch and frequency of its own activity—in other words, that they’ll help attune your ear to the very pitch and frequency of its own activity—in other words, that they’ll enable you to listen in on listening itself.
McCarthy’s concern here is to point out that nothing is original, that all creation is necessarily an act of synthesis. To read a novel is to read through the novel, to read the novelist’s sources (or, to use McCarthy’s metaphor, to listen through). McCarthy’s insights here are hardly new, of course—Ecclesiastes 1:19 gives us the idea over 2000 years ago, and surely it’s just another transmitter passing on a signal. What makes “Transmission” such a pleasure is its frankness, its clarity. Unlike so much postmodern criticism, McCarthy doesn’t trip over jargon or take flights of fancy into obscure metaphor. And even when he does get a bit flighty, he manages to clarify so many ideas of basic deconstructive theory:
This is it, in a nutshell: how writing works. The scattering, the loss; the charge coming from somewhere else, some point forever beyond reach or even designation, across a space of longing; the surge; coherence that’s only made possible by incoherence; the receiving which is replay, repetition—backward, forward, inside out or upside down, it doesn’t matter. The twentieth century’s best novelist understood this perfectly. That’s why Ulysses’s Stephen Dedalus—a writer in a gestational state of permanent becoming—paces the beach at Sandymount mutating, through their modulating repetition, air- and wave-borne phrases he’s picked up from elsewhere, his own cheeks and jaw transformed into a rubbery receiver . . .
Amazingly, the name Derrida doesn’t show up in “Transmission,” even as McCarthy gives us such a clear outline of that philosopher’s major ideas, as in the above riff’s explication of différance and iterability (with twist of Lacanian lack to boot). Or here, where McCarthy deconstructs the notion of a stable self:
All writing is conceptual; it’s just that it’s usually founded on bad concepts. When an author tells you that they’re not beholden to any theory, what they usually mean is that their thinking and their work defaults, without even realizing it, to a narrow liberal humanism and its underlying—and always reactionary—notions of the (always “natural” and preexisting, rather than constructed self, that self’s command of language, language as vehicle for “expression,” and a whole host of fallacies so admirably debunked almost fifty years ago by the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.
So I read Derrida through McCarthy’s reading of Robbe-Grillet. This is all transmission, writing as remix, but also reading as remix.
I could go on, but I fear that I’ll simply start citing big chunks of McCarthy’s essay, which is supremely citable, wonderfully iterable. Recommended.
From Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:
All writing is conceptual; it’s just that it’s usually founded on bad concepts. When an author tells you that they’re not beholden to any theory, what they usually mean is that their thinking and their work defaults, without even realizing it, to a narrow liberal humanism and its underlying—and always reactionary—notions of the (always) “natural” and preexisting, rather than constructed self, that self’s command of language, language as vehicle for “expression,” and a whole host of fallacies so admirably debunked almost fifty years ago by the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.
A passage from Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:
This is what all good writers are doing, and always have been. Here I’d part company even with Robbe-Grillet: there is nothing “new” about this. Shakespeare was remixing Ovid, Plutarch, Holinshed, not to mention the authors of the King Leirs and Hamlets already in circulation when he penned his versions. Cervantes was remixing Montalvo, Ariosto, Apuleius, and any number of picaresque authors—and doing this with such delirious selfconcsiousness that at one point he even makes the characters of Don Quixote pause to take stock of the library, the engine room behind their mad associate’s reenactments, perusing it as though it were some kind of source code—which it is. Pound was remixing Villon, Daniel, and Sordello; De Mailla, Marco Polo, and Malatesta; Jefferson, Adams, and Jackson, merging all these feed together as he wound them through his typewriter, splicing them in with fragments of newsprint, shards of radio transmissions—merging them yet in a manner that made no attempt to mask their fragmentary, collated character, to “naturalise” them. With the Cantos, he kept up this furious enterprise for five whole decades, ramping its intensity up and up until the overload destroyed him, blew his mind to pieces, leaving him to murmur, right toward the end: “I cannot make it cohere.”
A passage from Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix:”
It might be inferred, from what I’ve said, that any old remix will do. Not so: there are good and bad ones. Tristan Tzara cutting Shakespeare sonnets up and pulling their words from hats is an exercise in randomizing. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin mixing poems in with sliced-up pages of The New York Times is quite another matter: it is assiduous composition—composition understood in all its secondary nature: as reading, tracing, reconfiguring. Using the same technique, Gysin comes up with a few clumsy permutations along the lines of “Rub the Word Right Out . . . Word Right Rub the Out” and so on—whereas Burroughs generates such gorgeous sequences as:
Visit of memories. Only your dance and your voice house. On the suburban air improbable desertions . . . all harmonic pine for strife.
The great skies are open. Supreme bugle burning flesh children to mist.
Why does Burroughs conjure so much more richness from the same source material? Because (unlike the painter Gysin, whose skill lies primarily in the domain of images), he has uploaded the right verbal remix software. He has read and memorized his Dante, his Shakespeare, his Eliot—to such an extent that his activity as a composer consists of giving himself over to their cadences and echoes, their pulses, codas, loops, the better that these may work their way, through him, The New York Times and any other body thrown into the mix, into an audibility that, booming and echoing in the here-and-now, transforms all the mix’s elements, and time itself.
This is what all good writers are doing, and always have been.
If technology in general is at once a form both of self-extension and of amputation, then the branch of it that concerns itself with information and its relay—communication technology—is a true field-hospital operating -theater floor of hacked-off limbs, of bereaved bodies. A quick glance at the history of almost any comm.tech device will illustrate this perfectly.
Take the telephone: Alexander Bell, its inventor, grew up in the shadow of his father who ran a school for deaf-mutes and was continually inventing machines to substitute their powers of hearing and speaking. As a student, Alexander stole an ear from a morgue so that he could try to reproduce its inner workings mechanically; a few years later he brought home another defunct ear and, attached to it, the woman he’d marry, deaf like his mother. After his first brother died when his lungs gave out on him, he made a pact with the remaining one that if a second of them should die, the survivor would invent a device capable of receiving messages from the afterlife, should such a thing turn out to exist. The second brother did die, and Bell invented the telephone. He would probably have invented it anyway, and in fact remained a sceptic vis-a-vis the question of existence after death—but only because his brother never called. The desire for the call was there, wired into the very apparatus, haunting it.
From Tom McCarthy’s forthcoming essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix.”
A passage from Simon Critchley’s new collection of interviews and meditations, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying in which author Tom McCarthy (Critchley’s partner in the International Necronautical Society) talks about the question of an authentic, heroic self—
. . . in the heroic tradition in literature, which pits the self against death in a way that produces authenticity, you find a hero that runs into death like a fly slamming into an electric field, and which goes out in a tremendous spark of authentic apotheosis. There’s a lot about that, aesthetically, which is very seductive. However, we at the INS strongly reject that. Instead, we feel more seduced by the comic tradition in which the fly can’t even reach the electric field. It keeps tripping over its legs, or becomes distracted by something — dog shit, for example. So death in the comic tradition is not that of authentic self-mastery, but rather of a slippage; it’s about the inability to be oneself, and to become what one wants to be. And we think that that kind of tradition or logic is much more rich and fruitful.
At The Believer, you can read the entirety of “Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future’” by The International Necronautical Society (aka Simon Critchley and Tom McCarthy (although we’re pretty sure that the essay’s authorization code TMcC010910 indicates that McCarthy is its author)). Playful and provocative stuff. A sample–
5. The INS rejects the Enlightenment’s version of time: of time as progress, a line growing stronger and clearer as it runs from past to future. This version is tied into a narrative of transcendence: in the Hegelian system, of Aufhebung, in which thought and matter ascend to the realm of spirit as the projects of philosophy and art perfect themselves. Against this totalizing (we would say, totalitarian) idealist vision, we pit counter-Hegelians like Georges Bataille, who inverts this upward movement, miring spirit in the trough of base materialism. Or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who, hearing the moronic poet Russel claim that “art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences,” pictures Platonists crawling through Blake’s buttocks to eternity, and silently retorts: “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”
6. To phrase it in more directly political terms: the INS rejects the idea of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of dominant socioeconomic narratives of progress. As our Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley has recently argued, the neoliberal versions of capitalism and democracy present themselves as an inevitability, a destiny to whom the future belongs. We resist this ideology of the future, in the name of the sheer radical potentiality of the past, and of the way the past can shape the creative impulses and imaginative landscape of the present. The future of thinking is its past, a thinking which turns its back on the future.
Here are our favorite books published in 2010 (the ones that we read–we can’t read every book, you know).
A dark, elliptical treatise on the mundane and inescapable violence wrought by the Camorra crime syndicate in southern Italy.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned — Wells Tower (trade paperback)
Tower’s world is a neatly drawn parallel reality populated by down-on-their-luck protagonists who we always root for, despite our better judgment, even as they inadvertently destroy whatever vestiges of grace are bestowed upon them.
Kertész’s slim novella explores a storyteller’s inability to accurately and properly communicate spirit and truth against the backdrop of an oppressive Stalinist regime.
Shaw’s graphic novel is sardonically humorous in its psychoanalytic/post-apocalyptic visions. It’s a sweet and sour subversion of 1950′s comics and contemporary conformist groupthink politics. Witty and poignant, it advances its medium.
An unexpected historical romance from postmodern poster boy David Mitchell. Thousand Autumns is a big fat riff on storytelling and history and adventure–but mostly, Mitchell’s Shogunate-era Japan is a place worth getting lost in.
“I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature,” McCarthy said in an interview this year. “For me, that’s what literature’s always done.” C, our favorite novel of 2010, seems plugged into the past and the present, pointing to the future.
Wolf Hall — Hilary Mantel (trade paperback)
Who knew that we needed to hear the Tudor saga again? Who knew that Thomas Cromwell could be a good guy?
A mean, sad, hilarious novel that simultaneously eulogizes, valorizes, and mocks the American Dream.
Charles Burns does Tintin in William Burroughs’s Interzone. ‘Nuff said.
An epic compendium of, jeez, I don’t know, how do you define or explain what Davis does? Inspection, perception, mood, observation. Tales, fables, riffs, annotations, skits, jokes, japes, anecdotes, journals, thought experiments, epigrams, half-poems, and would-be aphorisms. Great stuff.
- “I think the historical thing is a red herring. I don’t see C as a historical novel. I see it as completely contemporary. It’s about media and our relation to media and to emerging new media and to networks.”
- “It comes straight from Freud. Trauma is the condition of our identity. Trauma is the most basic condition of our existence.”
- “It’s a dual trauma, Serge’s seduction by Sophie his sister and then the loss of the sister.”
- “The way I got the idea with the book was I had a long-standing fascination with this movie by Jean Cocteau, Orphée, his retelling of the Orpheus myth.”
- “Orpheus in this movie interfaces with the underworld via a radio and what he picks up are the voices of the dead poets.”
From Cocteau’s Orphée–
And, while we’re on reviews of C, I want to gripe about Michiko Kakutani’s negative review of the book at The New York Times. If you don’t like a book, fine. But if you’re a critic at an organ that purports to be the nation’s beacon of journalistic excellence, you need to practice better criticism than what Kakutani’s done here. I think it’s pretty much a given that a critic should judge a book on its own terms–in terms of what the author was trying to do. Instead, Kakutani faults McCarthy’s book for not living up to a standard she finds in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, of all things–
But unlike Mr. McEwan’s masterpiece “C” neither addresses larger questions about love and innocence and evil, nor unfolds into a searching examination of the consequences of art. Worse, “C” fails to engage the reader on the most basic level as a narrative or text.
Kakutani provides no real evidence for that second claim but I’ll let that alone for a moment, simply because I think she’s wrong, and that she doesn’t bother to back her subjective judgment reveals a rushed reading. What really bothers me though is this idea that C was supposed to address “larger questions about love and innocence and evil”–where did she get that idea? She tells us where she got it: a novel by Ian McEwan.
Here she is again dissing McCarthy for not meeting the Kakutani standard–
Although Mr. McCarthy overlays Serge’s story with lots of carefully manufactured symbols and leitmotifs, they prove to be more gratuitous than revealing.
Just what was the novel supposed to reveal to Kakutani? The same mysteries that McEwan plumbed in his earlier novel? Why, exactly? One of C’s greatest pleasures is its resistance to simple answers, to its willingness to leave mysteries unresolved (I believe this is what Keats meant by negative capability).
Kakutani devotes a few sentences to C’s dominant theme of emerging technology and communication–
As for the repeated references to radio transmissions and coded messages sent over the airwaves, they are apparently meant to signal the world’s entry into a new age of technology, and to underscore themes about the difficulties of communication and perception, and the elusive nature of reality. But while the many technology references also seem meant to remind the reader of Thomas Pynchon’s use of similar motifs in “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Mr. McCarthy’s reliance on them feels both derivative and contrived.
Notice how instead of talking about McCarthy’s novel she retreats to another novel? Why? Why does she assume that C is echoing Gravity’s Rainbow? This isn’t a rhetorical question–she doesn’t bother to tell us. She just uses Pynchon’s book to knock McCarthy’s, not to enlarge any analysis of it. That is the laziest form of criticism.
The New York Times did better by publishing a review of C by Jennifer Egan this weekend. Egan’s review is positive–and I loved C–but that’s not why the review redeems the Times’ standard. Egan’s review actually considers the book, discusses its language and themes, and tackles it on its own terms. When Egan does reference another book–Dickens’s David Copperfield–she does so in a way that enlarges a reader’s understanding of McCarthy’s project–not her own ideal of what a book should be.
Welcome to Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular*
*Not guaranteed to be spectacular.
777 seems like a beautiful enough number to celebrate, and because we’re terribly lazy, let’s celebrate by sharing reviews of seven of our favorite novels that have been published since this blog started back in the hoary yesteryear of 2006. In (more or less) chronological order–
The Road — Cormac McCarthy – That ending gets me every time. The first ending, I mean, the real one, the one between the father and son, not the tacked on wish-fulfillment fantasy after it. Avoid the movie.
Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson — Nobody knew we needed another novel about the Vietnam War and then Johnson went and showed us that we did. But it’s fair to say his book is about more than that; it’s an espionage thriller about the human soul.
2666 — Roberto Bolaño — How did he do it? Maybe it was because he was dying, his life-force transferred to the page. Words as viscera. God, the blood of the thing. 2666 is both the labyrinth and the minotaur.
Asterios Polyp — David Mazzucchelli — We laughed, we cried, and oh god that ending, right? Wait, you haven’t read Asterios Polyp yet? Is that because it’s a graphic novel, a, gasp, comic book? Go get it. Read it. Come back. We’ll wait.
C – Tom McCarthy — Too much has been made over whether McCarthy’s newest novel (out in the States next week) is modernist or Modernist or post-modernist or avant-garde or whatever–these are dreadfully boring arguments when stacked against the book itself, which is complex, rich, enriching, maddening.
MIL: It seems many avant-garde works rely on a single conceit. “Tristam Shandy” used lies, “Motherless Brooklyn” used a tourettic narrator. Must avant-garde literature have a single mechanism to be intelligible to its readers?
TM: What’s the conceit of “Finnegans Wake” then? I’m not sure “Tristram Shandy” has a single conceit. I suppose there’s an inversion of the ‘Life and Adventures of’ tradition into ‘The Life and Opinions of—plus an obvious refusal of certain narrative conventions, for example in Tristram’s inability to get himself born for the first third of his own book. But Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is equally full of such refusals: it subverts just about every dramatic convention that it purports to buy into. I’m suspicious of the term ‘avant-garde’. I think it should be restricted to its strict historical designation: Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists etc. “Tristram Shandy” and “Motherless Brooklyn” aren’t avant-garde novels; they’re novels. And very good ones too!
Tom McCarthy’s marvelous, confounding new novel C tells the life story of Serge Carrefax and his strange adventures at the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel begins with Serge’s birth on his parents’ estate Versoie; he’s born with a caul, a “veil around his head: a kind of web,” a mystic mark that both disconnects and, paradoxically, joins him to the world. At Versoie, Serge’s father Simeon experiments with wireless technology and runs a school for deaf children while Serge’s deaf mother farms bombyx mori moths for silk. Serge and big sis Sophie are left to the care of their tutor Mr. Clair, but they manage to get into trouble with their chemistry set when he’s not looking. In addition to offering the Carrefax kids a classical education, Mr. Clair, a proto-Marxist, teaches them a game akin to Monopoly. In a particularly inspired scene, they soon dispense with the game board to recreate the game on the real-live grounds of Versoie, eventually incorporating the aid of a wireless communication system. Then, when moving from wireless receiver to wireless receiver becomes too much hassle, they simply co-ordinate the game in their collective imagination, managing properties in the pure abstract. The game elegantly emphasizes the siblings’ development from playing via symbolic representation, to enacting those symbols on a one-to-one scale, to finally internalizing and encapsulating the real world. It’s as if they’ve swallowed Versoie into their very beings.
Versoie initiates and enacts its own strange culture and mythology, one that intertwines inextricably with Serge and Sophie’s childhood. It’s a rich, detailed world, at once magical and unsettling, bustling with bizarre pageants (part of Simeon’s curriculum), eclectic experiments, and visitors like Widsun, a British intelligence code-breaker/code-maker who serves as a mentor first to Sophie and later Serge. While Sophie delights in secret codes and chemistry (particularly poison-making), Serge experiments with wireless technology, spending late nights on his homemade wireless set with other “bugs.” In one scene, Serge listens to “an RXer in Lydium who calls himself ‘Wireworm’ [who] is tapping out his thoughts about the Postmaster General’s plans to charge one guinea per station for all amateurs.” Tech geeks with hyperbolic handles griping over minutiae in the wee hours–sound familiar? McCarthy describes Serge’s reaction: “Transcribing his clicks, Serge senses that Wireworm’s not so young: no operator under twenty would bother to tap out the whole word ‘fashion.’ The spacing’s a little awkward also: too studied, too self-conscious.” We get text messaging a century before text messaging, and as Serge searches between news reports and chess games and distress calls, we see that the world wide web is far older than we might have thought. Later in the novel Simeon writes a letter to his son where he describes a proto-internet, claiming his ambition is “to transmit moving pictures over distance, such that life in all its full, vibrant immediacy may be relayed without any delay.” This isn’t steampunk though, it’s simply a reminder that wireless technology isn’t an invention of our own time. C is an historical fiction deeply concerned with technological fact. It’s also a bildungsroman, too, so let’s return to young Serge, who soon ventures to a Bohemian spa with Clair as chaperon.
The adolescent Serge is ill. He perceives the world through a “guazy crepe” that blackens his vision, recalling the amniotic sac that webbed his head at birth. At the spa, Dr. Philip diagnoses Serge’s problem: “You . . . have got blockage. Jam, block, stuck. Instead of transformation, only repetition.” He accuses Serge of enjoying his illness, of enjoying “to feast on the mela chole, on the morbid matter, and to feast on it repeatedly, again, again, again, like it was lovely meat–lovely, black rotten meat.” The Burroughsian image of black meat pops up again and again in C, perhaps suggesting the human limitation to transcend–or in Philip’s words, transform–the mortal condition. However, Serge manages, through his own devices, to break through the blockage; if his epiphany is ultimately negative, at least it is real, a semi-Cronenbergian sexual awakening with a hunchback.
Like Versoie, the Bohemian spa is both a rich and alienating setting; McCarthy’s great gift to the reader is crafting enough detail in his set pieces to make them seem utterly real, yet to withhold enough so that the reader’s imagination fills in the gaps that might exist outside of Serge’s proximity. C is only 300 pages long yet feels much deeper–not longer, but deeper. This is most evident in the novel’s next milieu, the Great War, where Serge serves as a Royal Air Force aerial observer. War novels, histories, and movies have given us so much information about WWI that it would be easy for McCarthy to rely on stock tropes and received wisdom in communicating his set-piece, but instead he gives us something startlingly new. For example, how were the drugs in WWI, McCarthy asks. It’s in the Air Force that Serge first uses cocaine, rubbing it into his retinas to improve his eyesight while he’s spotting for German artillery batteries. He quickly moves to snorting mounds of the stuff before each take off. Here’s a lovely passage, where we see Serge’s nascent addiction blurring his perspective, ultimately leading to an autoerotic climax–
Higher up, the vapour trails of the SE5s form straight white lines against the blue, as though the sky’s surface were a mirror too. Scorch-marks and crater contours on the ground look powdery; it seems that if he swooped above them low enough, then he could breathe them up as well, snort the whole landscape into his head. The three hours pass in minutes. As they dip low to strafe the trenches on the way back, he feels the blood rush to his groin. He whips his belt off, leaps bolt upright and has barely got his trousers down before the seed shoots from him, arcs over the machine’s tail and falls in a fine thread towards the slit earth down below.
“From all the Cs!” he shouts. “The bird of Heaven!”
Serge doesn’t bother to reflect much on this episode and McCarthy’s third-person narrator is so effaced in the novel as to seem almost invisible. McCarthy shows and never tells, even when he allows some insight into Serge’s psyche. We learn that–
Of all the pilots and observers, Serge alone remains unhaunted by the prospect of a fiery airborne end. He’s not unaware of it: just unbothered. The idea that his flesh could melt and fuse with the machine parts pleases him. When they sing their song about taking cylinders out of of kidneys, he imagines the process playing itself out backwards: brain and connecting rod merging to form one, ultra-intelligent organ, his back quivering in pleasure as pumps and pistons plunge into it, heart and liver being spliced with valve and filter to create a whole new, streamlined mechanism.
Serge’s indifference toward death (or life) and his frequent drug-use aren’t the manifestations of a death-wish–although C does pull its hero to a mortal end, as a bildungsroman should–rather, we see in Serge’s cyborg fantasy a wish for transhumanist transcendence. Serge’s job as a flying observer grants him some measure of transcendence, reducing the landscape to a flat two-dimensional perspective that he can easily process and read. At the same time, the novel tropes against the motif of two-dimensional perspective, repeatedly pushing Serge into interior excavations, like a worm or beetle digging in to the earth. This happens in the most literal sense at the end of the Great War, when the Germans capture Serge and hold him as a P.O.W. Serge is fine though, happy to tunnel underground (as long as his morphine hookup remains unimpeded).
Serge’s drug addiction continues into his postwar years in London. Nominally an architecture student, he spends most of his time scoring heroin and coke and partying with would-be actresses. Serge’s inclination to two-dimensional perspective inhibits his architectural aptitude. He can only plan tombs. McCarthy’s evocation of 1920s London is dark and strange, a drug-addled fever dream riddled with ciphers and ghosts. The set-piece comes to a head when Serge’s girlfriend takes him to see a psychic medium who purports to channel the spirits of those who died in the war. An enraged Serge uses wireless technology to reveal the scam, but puncturing the fantasy effectively brings an end to his relationship.
Serge soon reconnects with his father’s friend Wisdun, who sends the young man to Egypt. Serge’s mission is to scout sites for the wireless pylons that will unite the world, but he’d really rather puzzle out the cultural, historical, and linguistic mishmash of Alexandria and explore unopened tombs in the desert with an archeologist’s sexy assistant. I’ve perhaps revealed too much of the book’s plot so far, and while I think I’ve avoided spoilers, I’ll hope that you simply take my word that the Egyptian set-piece at the end of C is a masterful, disturbing climax to a rich and rewarding book. C culminates by tying together its central juxtapositions of sex and death, connection and disconnection, excavation and total, flat perspective with its many motifs: bugs, tombs, art, drugs, language, time, communication, spirit. The book’s final pages are stunning; it’s the kind of linguistic storm that demands immediate rereading.
And you’ll want to reread the book: McCarthy gives us so much to unpack. There’s that enigmatic title, of course. What is the “C” in C for? C is for Carrefax, of course, but that’s too obvious. In his blurb, Luc Sante rightly points out that “C is for carbon and cocaine, Cairo and CQ.” I might also add that C is for see and sí and sea; C is for call and caul; C is for communicate and communion; C is for the c that slips from “insect” to “incest.” (I could go on of course; a third reading of the book will undoubtedly yield more). C seems to call to Thomas Pynchon’s V., a novel littered with historical episodes that dances with a bildungsroman’s structure. C also calls to Voltaire’s satirical bildungsroman Candide. And while I’m lazily name-dropping authors and books, I might as well favorably compare C with Joyce’s Portrait and much of J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs. It’s also thoroughly soaked in Freud and continental philosophy.
C is the best novel I’ve read in a long time, and the first novel I’ve immediately reread in full in a very long time. It will leave many readers cold (or even disgusted, perhaps), but isn’t this always the way for writers who push their audience? (Consider my lazy name-dropping above). You probably know by now if this is for you, but if I haven’t been clear — very highly recommended.
C is available in hardback in the UK on August 5, 2010 from Jonathan Cape, and available in hardback in the US on September 7, 2010 from Random House.
The Guardian published a great profile of Tom McCarthy today. Topics include Freud, the avant-garde, archeology, and his forthcoming novel C. From the article, here’s McCarthy on his book’s setting:
“It’s the great period of emergent technology,” McCarthy explains. “The book is set between 1898 – when Marconi was doing some of his earliest experiments – and 1922, which is the year the BBC was founded, and also the great year of modernism: The Waste Land and Ulysses. I wanted C to be a kind of archaeology of literature. But I think all ‘proper’ literature always has been an archaeology of other literature. The task for contemporary literature is to deal with the legacy of modernism. I’m not trying to be modernist, but to navigate the wreckage of that project.”
The Guardian has also run a review of C. Biblioklept’s review runs tomorrow. It was a struggle to write–it’s always a struggle to review a book you absolutely love. You always end up sounding a bit too breathless.
Great essay today at The Guardian from Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and the the forthcoming, highly-anticipated C. McCarthy discusses technology, modernity, and literature, mulling over writers like Blake, Cervantes, Shelley, Joyce, and Ballard. He also talks about some of the research that went into C. From his essay:
C takes place, specifically, between 1898 and 1922. The dates aren’t accidental: they mark the period between Marconi’s early short-distance radio experiments and the founding of that centralised state broadcaster of entertainment, news and propaganda that we still know as the BBC. In 1922, Britain was erecting, in its colonial territory Egypt, the first long-distance pylons of its proposed imperial wireless chain – and as it went about this, it lost Egypt, which gained independence in February of that year. For ancient Egyptians, “pylons” were gateways to the underworld: these modern ones came to symbolise bereavement on a national scale. In November, also in Egypt, Howard Carter disinterred what would become the most famous family crypt of all time. 1922 was also modernism’s annus mirabilis, seeing the publication of The Waste Land, in which voices, dialogues and even weather reports drift in and out of audibility as its author-operator fiddles with his literary dial – and Ulysses, a huge textual switchboard in which the themes of death and media are plugged into each other time and again.
Look for our full review of C sometime next week.
Surplus Matters has reprinted last week’s edition of The Sunday Times interview with/profile of Tom McCarthy about his new novel C, our favorite new novel of 2010 (The Sunday Times is not free, so thank you, Surplus Matters). The author of the article, Robert Collins, situates McCarthy’s C as an indirect answer to David Shields’s argument in Reality Hunger that the successful modern novel must be a synthesis or remix. We’ve been critical of Shields’s argument, which ultimately rests on aesthetic assumptions that allow Shields to pick what texts will count in his reality canon. To put it another way, great works of literature, from Homer to Ovid to Shakespeare to Henry Miller have always been appropriating and recontextualizing the texts that came before them. McCarthy’s C doesn’t respond to Shields’s would-be manifesto; it obliterates it, following in the (counter)tradition of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and William Burroughs, writers who navigated the treacherous straits of history, art, representation, and reality. C is rich and inventive, telling the life story of Serge Carrefax in the early part of the 20th century. We follow Serge through his strange youth, where he experiments with wireless technology, to the skies of WWI, where he maps the terrain below him; we follow him through his drug-soaked twenties in the ’20s and eventually to the tombs of Egypt. C isn’t a response to the demands of a marketplace that increasingly demands gimmicky concepts and reality-soaked memoirs; instead, to use McCarthy’s term, C plugs into the reservoir of literature that precedes it. From the article:
If McCarthy — as [Zadie] Smith has suggested — presents a radically fresh prospect for the future of the novel, it is probably, paradoxically, because he has instinctively ignored contemporary literature almost completely. He would argue, in fact, that it is only by immersing oneself in all that has gone before that any contemporary novelist has even the faintest chance of coming up with something new. “I don’t think most writers, most commercial middlebrow writers, are doing that,” he says. “I think they’ve become too aligned with mainstream media culture and its underlying aesthetic of ‘self-expression’. I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature. For me, that’s what literature’s always done. If Shakespeare finds a good speech in an older version of Macbeth or Pliny, he just rips it and mixes it. It’s like DJing.”