Monday, 9 August 2010

'everything returns'

by Tom McCarthy

Right, deep breath. I have been looking forward to this novel for about a year. In fact you could say three years as it was almost that long ago, when reviewing his previous novel, Men In Space, that I proffered that it would be his next novel that gave us an idea of 'what he's capable of'. It was about a year ago that I read an interview where he dropped some hints about what his new novel was about that I started to get excited. I am an unashamed fan of Tom McCarthy, you see, Remainder is one of my favourite novels and I can't help but be impressed by the clear intelligence of a man who argued so persuasively the literary merits of Hergé in Tintin and the Secret of Literature. So there was a lot riding on this one, too much perhaps, my impatience at not being able to grab a proof finally allayed when the finished copy came through the door and I marvelled at the lovely hardback with its see-through dust jacket. (In a quick side note there's a fascinating article about the process of designing the cover for the American edition of the book here which touches on many of the book's themes).

The reason I mention all this fan-aticism is not because I'm about to gush all over C but because I'm going to give it a slightly harder time. This novel is outwardly conventional whilst being ingeniously clever and experimental, filled with ideas, theories and historical detail, with enough to keep a reader satisfied and surprised for several re-readings afterwards. But all that cannot take away from the fact that it is also a difficult book to enjoy and even to read in places. It may be that McCarthy is deliberately refusing to satisfy the reader with what might be expected from a novel (he has precedent for this), but for all the moments that that invigorates the mind there are others where it brings it grinding to a halt. All of which makes it sound like I don't like it, but I do. A lot. Contradictory little fellow, aren't I?

To begin at the beginning. You wait years for a book with an explosive opening involving a birth and then two come along at once. Serge Carrefax, surges into the world in the opening chapter and we follow his progress into the twentieth century in what looks at first to be a classic bildungsroman. Born into an emigre family, living on an estate called Versoie in the English countryside that doubles as both school for deaf children and silk factory, Serge is born on the cusp of momentous change, a home and time that literally buzzes with anticipation. His father is an inventor as well as principal of the school, coils of wire are delivered by the doctor on the same day that he brings Serge into the world and he certainly seems more excited about the wire than anything else. His wife, a former pupil, runs the silk operation and her deafness is counterpointed by the cacophony of sound that Serge soon becomes a part of. For all of the technical detail McCarthy is what I can only describe as a very sensuous writer. In Remainder it was snatches of smell or sight that helped its protagonist piece together a shattered memory. Here sound is the most dominant; the buzzing of bees or machines, humming wires, singing canaries, even the sound of moths coupling, Serge encounters sound as something he can almost visualise and his connection to the the telegraphic developments of his father's and the machinery that begins to surround them is closely felt.

But every night they get to watch Kinetoscope projections. It becomes a ritual; as soon as supper's over the bedsheet's hauled up, chairs laid out and reel after reel fed into the mechanism. Serge carries the sounds of the celluloid strip running through its gate to bed with him, clicking and shuffling in his ears long after the machine's been put to sleep, more real and present than the trickling of the stream or chirping grasshoppers. each time Wisdun racks up a new spool and starts running it, Serge feels a rush of anticipation run through the cogs and sprockets of his body; his mind merges with the bright bedsheet, lit up with the possibilities of what might dance across it in the next few seconds, its outrageous metamorphoses as moth's and mosquito's shadows on the screen turn into jumping hairs and speckles, then the first unsteady pictures, empty linen springing into artificial life.

McCarthy wastes no time, the opening chapters acting like time lapse photographs as we see first Serge's birth, then his near-drowning at two and a half, and then suddenly he is seven. It compliments the pace of change in the world as Serge grows up to encounter the development of technologies as diverse as wireless communication, cinema and powered flight. Serge is inextricably linked to these as well, he sees the world in terms of spatial relations and seems to be tuned in to the growing numbers of radio waves emitted. His own catalysts for change are far more personal though and it is his sister's death that sees our focus shift from Versoie to a spa in central Europe. Conventionally you might expect an emotional response from your protagonist here but from Serge there is almost the opposite. If grieving is a central theme of the book then this is not a traditional treatment of it. Whilst undergoing treatment for 'black bile', some kind of psychosomatic 'blockage' that is halting his 'transformation', he becomes fascinated radio and the hunch-backed woman who metes out his daily massage. His treatment and movement towards change harks back to the silk worm factory of his childhood.

Still lying on the segmented table, Serge sees in his mind's eye cocooned men, trapped in escritoires or trussed up in sweat-filled blankets, pulsing in figures of eight as they mutate into resin-oozing, black silk-larvae that will never become moths. From the recesses of his stomach, as though from a box, he hears again a child's or woman's scream."Out now," says Dr. Filip. "Go and start transforming."

This is an example of how McCarthy has his images and themes absolutely sewn up. There's nothing loose or flabby in that paragraph, every image directly relates to something else in the book and even beyond that to similar themes established in other books. This is the reason why McCarthy should be taken very seriously as a writer I think, he's building a body of work that is intricately linked and it's no surprise that recurring themes include codes and cryptography, one gets the impression that his art-influenced writing is as full of coded meaning as the paintings that hang in the National Gallery.

Serge is steered towards the sky's above the battlefields of the Great War by his godfather Widsun, an influential presence in the novel, where he operates as an observer in the new planes that fly over the front lines. It's no surprise that this section has a much greater energy than the rest of the book and I'll confess to having a week spot for the heroics of fly boys. Even here McCarthy doesn't give what you might expect, a seat-of-the-pants thrill ride, but distances Serge from the turmoil, his senses slowed and altered by his predilection for heroin. There's some welcome humour too, of a very British kind, when Serge asks his pilot to land, desperate for the toilet.

They bounce across the village cricket pitch. Serge slides down off the wing, lowers his trousers and relieves himself above the wicket, just short of a length on middle and off.
"What village is this anyway?" he asks as he strolls back towards Stedman, who's stretching his legs beside the machine as he consults a map.
"Tenterden, I think," Stedman answers. "Population six hundred and twenty-nine."
"Six hundred and thirty now," Serge tells him. "Let's go."
There are some well managed set-pieces here too and always a wish to thread the complex technical terms and philosophical thoughts of the early twentieth century into the text. Your appetite for those may well decide how excited you get whilst reading the book, below is an excerpt which gives a flavour of both an arresting image and a raft of technicality, but there's no doubt that the book contains much that would reward further readings. In fact it is a book which virtually demands it.

They have to fly lower to see where shells are landing, or even to get their own bearings. At one point a howitzer shell appears right beside them, travelling in the same direction - one of their own, surfacing above the smoke-bank like a porpoise swimming alongside a ship, slowly rotating in the air to show it's underbelly as it hovers at its peak before beginning its descent. It's so close that its wind-stream gently lifts and lowers the machine, making it bob. Serge knows that planes get hit by their own shells, but this one seems so placid, so companionable - and besides, if they're travelling at the same speed then both it and they are just still bodies in space, harmless blocks of matter. In the instant before their paths diverge, it seems to Serge that the shell and the pane are interchangeable - and that the shell and he are interchangeable, just like the radians and secants on his clock-code chart, the smoke-and-vapour-marked points and trajectories around him, the angles of his holding pattern's quadrant and the Popham strips' abrupt cloth lines. Within the reaches of this space become pure geometry, the shell's a pencil drawing a perfect arc across a sheet of graph paper; he's the clamp that holds the pencil to the compass, moving as one with the lead; he is the lead, smearing across the surface to become geometry himself...
After a spell in post-war London where he joins an army of narcotics users and encounters the fad of spiritualism Serge finally finds himself in Egypt, the perfect location to pick up those themes of cryptology (pun fully intended) and for McCarthy to begin to tie up some of those silken threads that have run through each page of the novel. I know I'm not close to appreciating the real achievements of this book, writing this review has taught me that at least, but I do know the curious feeling of being enthused and disappointed at the same time. I'm perfectly willing to see that as a failure of mine and I realise that other readers won't have made enough of an investment in McCarthy to be as generous but I'm sure that despite the flaws and the difficulty this is a novel worthy of its place on the Booker list and even of the prize. The judges will have to read it at least twice more if that's to be the case. I envy them the opportunity to do that for a job, as I think each time they might get closer to cracking just how good McCarthy really can be.


Max Cairnduff 10 August 2010 at 12:26  

Fascinating to read this. This is the only book in the lineup this year that has really grabbed my attention and it sounds fantastic. Challenging, clever and well written.

So it likely won't win, but so it goes. At least it's getting some attention. Nice review William.

William Rycroft 10 August 2010 at 23:59  

It is all of the things you say Max, well worth reading, and of the five books I've read on the longlist so far it's the one that I know will keep me thinking whilst the judges make up their minds.

Philip 4 October 2010 at 21:40  

William - I'm enjoying C - despite it's cover. Seriously, thanks for the review. Just to let you know I actually am going to cancel the observer because I'm convinced you do a far better job. Their reviews were all I bought it for, and you're better.

William Rycroft 4 October 2010 at 23:22  

Philip, you're very kind, and quite possibly drunk. Glad to hear that you're enjoying C. It's very different to Remainder isn't it?

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