Tom McCarthy Reads from His Novel C (. . . and We Gripe about Michiko Kakutani)

At The Guardian, Tom McCarthy reads from his novel C. Here’s Biblioklept’s review of C.

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.

6 thoughts on “Tom McCarthy Reads from His Novel C (. . . and We Gripe about Michiko Kakutani)”

  1. In this week’s NY Times Book Review podcast, Egan seems to indirectly reference Kakutani’s review by arguing the very point you make about addressing the book on its own terms.

    Your own review made me want to read ‘C’. Thanks.

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    1. Well, hey, thanks JA-H — I just hope that you like C. Or it affects you in some way. Just as long as it’s not boring. Thanks for the tip on the podcast, too–I didn’t want to make this post too much of a rant, but it bugs me (as I’m sure it does even more so authors like Egan) when a reviewer attacks a book for what it’s *not*.

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  2. One of Kakutani’s schticks is that the book she is reviewing represents a falling off from a previous book, most often the last book from the author under consideration. She lives in a world that is conveniently getting worse and providing her criticism with a structure. Her failure to use Remainder as a book that C fails to live up to can be read as an indication that Kakutani recognizes that McCarthy has developed as a writer.

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  3. […] Tom McCarthy Reads from His Novel C (. . . and We Gripe about Michiko Kakutani) (via biblioklept) Jump to Comments I could not help giggling as I totally agree with what Biblioklept said. I don’t understand why Michiko Kakutani compared ‘C’ with ‘Atonement’ anyway. They are two entirely different novels. To juxtapose the two novels is like putting an orange beside an apple. They have disparate flavours. Then she went on likening Mr. McCarthy’s book to the unreadable novel, ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, by Thomas Pynchon. Again, they are not the same. On top of that, albeit how very masterful the two novels are, Atonement and Gravity’s Rainbow are not literary benchmarks. Different novelists have their own creative ways to compose their narratives. It is just daft to expect a novel to deal with something big like philosophical questions. At The Guardian, Tom McCarthy reads from his novel C. Here's Biblioklept's review of C. 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 give … Read More […]

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  4. I think you should write a letter to the editor, using Updike’s rules for book reviews (they love them some Updike), and call Kakutani out on her bullshit!

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  5. Well said. Kakutani’s review was a joke. Atonement? Really? I found that novel passable, rather longwinded, overtold and unambitious. And whether one likes that novel or not it’s in a wholly different order than McCarthy’s ‘C’! Its a 1st person narration plumbing a girl’s emotions and guilt for crying out loud. C is a broad avant-garde study in meaning, reality and society.

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