Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tom McCarthy and "C": cyphers, cocaine, and cryptic plots





C, by Tom McCarthy -- just out in paperback -- was nominated for the 2010 Man Booker prize. McCarthy's third novel is a roller-coaster fiction of history, technology, drugs, and the occult that manages to be equally confounding and funny in a detached, distant writing style readers find variously frustrating, flat, or provocative. In short, the book is in danger of becoming worthy of the "experimental fiction" tag McCarthy earned from the slow-building success of his first novel, Remainder (2007).

An admiring Guardian UK reviewer called C "a 1960's-style anti-novel," one that reflects the word-play and idea-layering techniques of Beckett, Burroughs, and Joyce. Those are comparisons that can swing in multiple directions: Michiko Kakutani, in a New York Times review, called these same reference points disappointing, derivative, and contrived.

McCarthy recently said of the novel's shattered plot and near-Edwardian prose settings that the four-year writing process was a difficult start:

Once you get past that point of critical velocity or whatever, the whole project flies ... I was thinking about death and mourning, and researching the history of wireless, i.e., thinking about crypts and encryption, and the idea for the novel came to me reading about first world war pilots and early radio buffs and 1920s drug-fiends. C is absolutely not a "historical novel" (it's about new media and empire -- i.e., about now), but all the same it's set during that period and the research was real fun.

In simplest outline, Serge Carrefax is born in 1898 on an estate named Versoie in southern England. In World War I, he's a wireless operator in spotter planes over the front -- an experience he enjoys, in a Futurist kind of way.

Having acquired a taste for cocaine and heroin, he turns up next in London after the war, studying architecture and tangling with flappers and fraudulent spiritualists. At novel's end, in 1922, he's sent to Egypt to help set up a world-spanning imperial communications network. It's a task that takes him to an archaeological dig in Cairo. Christopher Tayler, The Guardian UK reviewer, describes this modernist, mysterioso interlude as a point "where McCarthy dispenses a few of the keys to what is, by this stage, an immense symbolic superstructure."



Admittedly the story -- and its conflicted, cocaine-sniffing hero -- isn't intended as a chart-topping Dan Brown style potboiler, and the author is pointed in saying so. McCarthy's writing has a sort of backward-glancing, almost leisurely charm about it that makes C more about the telling than the tale -- an early 20th-century story where the secure and horse-drawn past is about to collide with an unexpected and twisted future.

Here's a short excerpt from the novel's first chapter; C has just been published in paperback by Vintage Books.


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.

The rattle of glass bottles and the fricative rasp of copper wire against more copper wire rise from the trap's back and, mixing with the click and shuffle of the horse's hooves on gravel, hang undisturbed about the still September air. Above the vehicle tall conifers rise straight and inert as columns. Higher, much further out, black birds whirr silently beneath a concave vault of sky. Between the doctor's legs are wedged a brown case and a black inhaling apparatus. In his hand he holds a yellow piece of paper. He's scrutinising this, perplexed, as best he can.

From time to time he glances up from it to peer through the curtain of conifers, which reveal, then quickly conceal again, glimpses of mown grass and rows of smaller trees with white fruit and green and red foliage. There's movement around these: small limbs reaching, touching and separating in a semi-regular pattern, as though practising a butterfly or breaststroke. The trap rolls through a hanging pall of wood smoke, then turns, clearing the conifers.

Now Learmont can see that the limbs belong to children, four or five of them, playing some kind of game. They stand in a loose circle, raising their arms and patting their hands together. Their lips are moving, but no sound's emerging from them. Occasionally a squawk of laughter ricochets around the orchard, but it's hard to tell which child it's coming from. Besides, the laughter doesn't sound quite right. It sounds distorted, slightly warped—ventriloquised almost, as though piped in from somewhere else. None of the children seem to notice his arrival; none of them, in fact, seem to be aware of their own individual presence outside and beyond that of the moving circle, their separateness given over to its fleshy choreography of multiplied, entwining bodies.

Without jerking the reins or speaking to the horse, Mr. Dean pulls the trap to a halt. Beside it, to its right, a narrow, still stream lies in front of a tall garden wall over which, from the far side, ferns and wisteria are spilling. To the trap's left, a veined set of rose-bush stems and branches, flowers gone, clings to another wall. The wood-smoke pall comes from beyond this. So, too, does an old man with a rake, emerging from a doorway in the wall to shunt a wheelbarrow across the gravel.

"Hello!" Learmont calls out to him. "Hello?"

The old man stops, sets down his wheelbarrow and looks back at Learmont. "Can you tell me where to find the main house? The entrance?"

The old man gestures with his free hand: over there. Then, taking up the handle of his wheelbarrow once more, he shuffles past the trap towards the orchard. Learmont listens as his footsteps die away. Eventually he turns to Mr. Dean and says: "Silent as a tomb."

Mr. Dean shrugs. Dr. Learmont climbs down onto the gravel, shakes his legs and looks around. The old man seemed to be pointing beyond the overspilling garden wall. This, too, has a small doorway in it.

"Why don't you wait here?" Learmont suggests to Mr. Dean. "I'll go and find—" he holds his yellow paper up and scrutinises it again—"this Mr. Carrefax."

Mr. Dean nods. Dr. Learmont takes his case and inhaler, steps onto a strip of grass and crosses a small wooden bridge above the moat-like stream. Then, lowering his head beneath wisteria that manage to brush it nonetheless, he walks through the doorway.

Inside the garden are chrysanthemums, irises, tulips and anemones, all stacked and tumbling over one another on both sides of a path of uneven mosaic paving stones. Learmont follows the path towards a passageway formed by hedges and a roof of trellis strung with poisonberries and some kind of wiry, light-brown vine whose strands lead off to what look like stables. As he nears the passageway, he can hear a buzzing sound.

2 comments:

Paul Brennan said...

C was nominated for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

M Bromberg said...

Thanks -- corrected.