What does this mean?
“Experimental” or innovative fiction can have peculiar effects. The novel is aimed at going beyond story-telling, and it generally broaches philosophical themes or makes inroads into the structure of language and notions of “theory” that can be as puzzling as the various forms and oddities of construction that the novelist employs.
Tom McCarthy, an English novelist, established himself in his first book, Remainder, as a writer of this sort of demanding fiction. His second novel, C, nominated for the Booker Prize, is equally challenging; it did not find much favor when it was reviewed in Commonweal.
C is driven by a straightforward chronological narrative presenting the life of Serge Carrefax. The time involved spans the years before the First War, includes Serge’s participation in that conflict as a pilot/observer/signal man, and ends in Egypt with the remains of Empire very much complicating the “communications” that Serge is to further in setting up a British wireless base. The book attempts much in exploration of meaning – communication through the media of signs, from language to art to cyphers and code. McCarthy explores the earliest stages of radio development and transmission, looks with expert analysis at the adoption of these advances in technology to warfare, and then goes on, through his characters to speculate on the meaning of messages encoded in ancient Egyptian tombs. Serge’s eccentric father, silk-manufacturing mother and precocious, suicidal sister all contribute to a heady primal family scene. The sister’s death by her own hands weighs on Serge (so we might interpret his later visit to a spa in Germany to convalesce) and, as had been suggested by reviewers, might account for his emotional flatness: he surprises someone who later interviews him by admitting that he liked the war. His fate, embraced in a listless obedience to the demands of his governmental department, communicates little, beyond a hermetically sealed reverie induced by fever from blood poisoning. This is one of a number of rhapsodic passages in which Serge’s consciousness probes the meaning of his experience: the form of the novel is an experiment in the limits of language in these cases. McCarthy is a master stylist, but there are few revelations following from such explorations – a controlling irony leaves us with just that: consciousness tortured by its partial realization of its isolation.
The joys of the book, and despite its jarring demands there are many, come for me at least, not in the excursions into the symbolic and narrative explorations of weighty issues – “the meaning of meaning” as one reviewer put it, but in the quirky eccentricity of Serge’s family. Their story evolves in the first section of the book and captivates. There is much here to admire, voice, plot, literary allusion and pathos – evinced in the restricted understanding of Serge of the events that surround him, even as he becomes expert in telegraphy and radio. Likewise, McCarthy opens up another aspect of the First War’s conflicts, concentrating on the use of aircraft in target spotting and signaling. The plethora of detail and the expert management of scene and incident are revelatory. The lengthy discourses on the history of ancient Egypt, delivered by Laura, one of Serge’s companions on a journey up the Nile to an archeological site, succeed less well, but again their focus is narrative and interpretation of narrative. As in earlier accounts of bogus séance-contact with the dead, the novelist asks us to consider what endures in the interplay between life and death. The sense of fictional mystery, that of the clairvoyante or that of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, informs C – even as it might occasion profound analysis of its weighty themes. But here a confession: I have to admit, given the intellectual power behind the writing of C, that I found its rewards in the narrative that develops eccentric characters and in those sections on aircraft in the Great War. I suspect a good story bears its own telling, and in that process more often than not goes beyond what is said. The contrast between the knotted and allusive passages that beg in their form for further analysis and those in which the story gets told simply constitutes the lasting impression I have of this novel. I hesitate to venture that this is indeed central to its meaning and to its limitations.