FICTION:C By Tom McCarthy Cape, 310pp, £16.99
THE TITLE lures one in; Ccan only mean one thing: carbon, the life force of matter. It is elemental. So here is a novel with a defining title and a snazzy jacket to boot; any reader would have to be excited, even before noting that writers no less than Roberto Bolaño, Thomas Pynchon and the mighty Samuel Beckett are evoked as comparisons. Small wonder your hands are sweaty and your hopes are high with the promise of something new, rare, magnificent and, dare one utter the word, different.
Hardly surprising, then, that the disappointment on reading C is akin to a chill fog gripping your innards. Here is a tease of a narrative: Tom McCarthy’s third novel is a slap-happy, unoriginal historical yarn teetering between the late 19th century and the early 20th and appears determined to be anti-conventional while being just that. It opens many boxes and then slams them shut. With few exceptions, such as a wonderful description of Alexandria, this pedestrian picaresque – which in itself may be an achievement, as a picaresque is usually lively – never lives up to its many pretentions.
The warning notes are sounded as early as the opening sentences: “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. He has sore buttocks: the seat’s hard and uncushioned. His companion, Mr Dean of Hudson and Dean Deliveries (Lydium and Environs Since 1868) doesn’t seem to feel any discomfort. His glazed eyes stare vaguely ahead: his leathery hands, reins woven through their fingers, hover just above his knees.”
Somehow it is already clear: this novel is unlikely to simmer with the crazed fire of a Bolaño. Even before the distracted inventor Carrefax stomps into view, barking for the zinc and selenium he ordered while displaying no interest in the doctor who has arrived to deliver his deaf wife’s baby, this novel seems far closer to John Irving or William Boyd than to anything penned by Beckett.
The Carrefax household is described with gusto: the father runs a school for the deaf and is interested only in communication and technology; the silk-making wife is passive and silent; and Sophie, the older sister of the new baby, our future hero, is obsessed with natural science. Carrefax shouts his way through life: even when Sophie, a promising scientist, dies at 17, having swallowed poison by accident – or was it? – the inventor ushers guests in to her funeral as if her death is only an experiment and she is bound to revive.
She doesn’t. Nor does the novel.
McCarthy may well be cutting edge – so cutting edge he has deliberately written a dated book that may well have been left in a drawer somewhere for the past 50 years, its author having conceded that Pynchon already exploited this running-gag-type narrative – and far more skilfully.
The characters are one-dimensional. Although Carrefax snr, a panto-type loudmouth with a fondness for pagents and shouting “splendid”, could be based on John Cleese in overdrive, the hero, Serge, is both cartoon figure and lost soul.
It is as if McCarthy has no interest in character and tolerates characterisation as a means of demonstrating his talent for mildly amusing dialogue, often based on misunderstandings from comments being misheard – rather too obvious a device in a narrative featuring deafness and emerging communication.
Illness, disease, dying and death are also major themes. When Serge is dispatched to a spa of sorts, it seems perhaps McCarthy is building up for some fun at the expense of Mann's The Magic Mountain(1924). Serge is no Hans Castrop, yet he discovers he is more ill than he thought he was, or at least that his condition is more complex. Dr Filip informs him: "Rotten meat pollutes your soul." Understandably bewildered, Serge listens and hears: "Blockage must be broken, then body and soul will open up, like flowers."
Although he has good company in the form of Lucia, a comely fellow patient, Serge becomes interested in Tania, his humpbacked masseuse. While diffident by nature, he is sexually active and invariably engages with his partners from behind. McCarthy works hard at keeping everything slightly off centre, even the humour, which may explain why this novel is not quite as funny as its author may have suspected.
By the time Serge takes to the skies as an observer in the shaky aircraft of the Great War, Cis creaking. It's Blackadderwithout the laughs. "Flying towards the lines, Serge has the same sensation as he had in massage sessions with Tania towards the end of his Klodebrady sojourn." He also discovers drugs.
Perhaps Cis intended as a rejection of conventional fiction. Why not? Many novelists have challenged the form, but one of the many difficulties with Cis that it is neither very funny nor particularly clever. The most interesting fact about Serge is that he is so uninteresting. Perhaps this is intended as a rejection of the heroic. Even if it is, it is not enough.
McCarthy tosses history, geography, archaeology and science, factual asides and cross references into his messy soup. The non-characters are at their best when dispensing facts.
But there is that wonderful description of Alexandria: “The city’s long esplanades . . . the awnings, balconies and palm trees . . . Native men in European dress embellished by red flowerpot fezzes hurry past . . . carrying briefcases of legal documents . . .” Others wear traditional dress, and “the robes remind Serge of pyjamas, lending the city a sleepy look, as though it had just now been roused, or half-roused from its slumber”.
Before Serge sets off on his final escapade he visits home, where he notices that his mother has aged: “She looks depleted, like a silkworm that’s secreted all it can.” Perhaps McCarthy meant to write “excreted”. It doesn’t really matter: secreted or excreted, this knowing, laboured and oddly hasty narrative, expected to make next week’s Man Booker shortlist, never adds up to the sum of its many musings.
Why read it at all when Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbowstill seems so much more inventive, so much more convincing – and funnier.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of
The Irish Times