Epiphanies, Sort of

Tom McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 310 pp.

British writer Tom McCarthy’s novel C provided me with my most ecstatic book experience of the past year. This ecstasy didn’t come from reading the book but from buying it. I purchased my copy at a very fine independent bookstore in Boston, where the young, cerebral-looking woman behind the counter nodded knowingly. “This,” she said in a quiet voice meant only for me, “is supposed to be really good. Really good.” I nodded and we smiled at each other, and I suspect she was thinking what I was thinking. Why join hordes of plebian bookworms reading a new Jonathan Franzen novel about the foibles of ordinary, recognizable people, when we could instead be among the few initiates able to appreciate the vertiginous and mysterious mind-world of Tom McCarthy’s fiction, a place where everything is connected and nothing matters?

C has commanded serious critical attention, if not uniform praise, and it was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It tells the story of a globetrotting radio operator named Serge Carrefax, from his auspicious birth in 1899 to his bleakly mystical death a few decades later. If you think I’ve ruined the novel for you by telling you how it ends, you’re definitely not McCarthy’s intended reader. This is a novel that blithely disavows standard conventions of modern fiction such as plot-driven storytelling and well-developed characters. To be sure, there are some compelling, even brilliant narrative sequences in the book, but...

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About the Author

Randy Boyagoda, a novelist and critic, is a professor of American studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. He is writing a biography of Richard John Neuhaus, and his second novel, Beggar’s Feast, has just been published by Penguin Canada.