Seeing Things Flat

Jenny Turner

  • C by Tom McCarthy
    Cape, 310 pp, £16.99, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 224 09020 9

For the final part of this novel’s first movement, our young hero, Serge Carrefax, travels to Kloděbrady’, a presumably Austro-Hungarian spa town, to take a cure. It’s 1913, and Serge is two years older than the century. His problem is ‘a blockage’, ‘encumbrances’ in his bowel. ‘Morbid matter … Bad stuff … black bile: mela chole,’ the doctor says. ‘Your illness is not a thing; it is a process. A rhythm. Toxins are secreted around body, organs become accustomed and, perverted by custom, addicted.’ The deep link between spiritual state and bowel habit was well known to the ancients – viz the Aristotelian catharsis – but too often since then has been bypassed, though everybody knows in their gut of guts how real it is. What a relief then when the doctor diagnoses Serge’s condition, prescribing enemas, massage and many glasses of the disgusting local water. Not that any of it works. Serge’s stool is still ‘solid, liquorice-black’, its ‘folds and creases’ dotted with bits of blood. ‘Jam, block, stuck,’ the good doctor says. ‘Instead of transformation, only repetition.’

Besides the abdominal issue, Serge’s vision is suffering. His sight is ‘furry’, ‘veiled’, as though one of his mother’s silks (she’s a tapestry artist, a Huguenot) is stretched in front of his eyeballs: ‘dark-gauzed, covered in fleck-film’. Serge looks around him, around the spa town: grown men in tubs like cocoons, like giant turds; the ferocious previews of the First World War as international guests squabble round the tables in the hotel restaurants. ‘From the recesses of his stomach, as though from a box, he hears again a child’s or woman’s scream.’

Hold on tight, please, to that scream. Before the spa-town episode, we have heard the story of Serge’s youth on the pastoral estate of Versoie, somewhere near ‘West Masedown and New Eliry’ in the south of England, where children gambol, plants tumble, insects buzz and hover, flat and patterned, picturesque. It is, of course, a fantasy and a folly, contrived to present the requisite vistas: Mama with her silks and her proprietary opiates; Papa’s day school for the local deaf children, the mad-scientist radio hamming he does on the side; Sophie, Serge’s brilliant, troubled older sister; the cryptogrammatic Widsun, godfather and spymaster and mentor to both children, in ways that are not specified but are almost certainly wrong. At midsummer, the deaf schoolchildren perform a ludicrous pageant: Persephone, Ceres, Ascalaphus, Zeus cranking out his lightning with a hand turbine; and then, a bit later, at the outdoor theatre again, Serge witnesses something even odder. A chance encounter between a sewing machine and an umbrella? An act of sex a tergo, and if so, involving whom?

It’s some kind of moving thing made of articulated parts. One of the parts is horizontal, propped up on four stick legs like a low table; the other is vertical, slotted into the underside of the table’s rear end but rising above it, its spine wobbling as the whole contraption rocks back and forth. The thing pulses like an insect’s thorax, and with each pulse comes the rustle, scratch and chafe; with each pulse the horizontal, low part squeaks, and the vertical part now starts emitting a deep grunt, a gruff, hog-like snort.

By night, Serge starts staying up in his bedroom, surfing the beginnings of wireless transmission on the airwaves: static, coastguards, distress signals from a famous shipwreck, ‘wireless ghosts’. One night, he looks out of his window and sees a ‘white figure’ gliding across the lawn:

The experience startles him – not least because it plays out in the real and close-up space around the house an aspect of some scenes that he occasionally intuits but never quite pins down when riding the dial’s highest reaches: vague impressions of bodies hovering just beyond the threshold of the visible, and corresponding signals not quite separable from the noise around them.

It’s Sophie, by now a young adult, and in great distress; after a few days of such night-walking, she will commit suicide – so precipitating, perhaps, the block in her brother’s sight and bowels.

This sort of easy hermeneuticising, however, isn’t quite the novel’s point. ‘Vague impressions of bodies hovering just beyond the threshold of the visible’: the presentation is liminal and phenomenological, a matter not so much of people and places as of entities and angles; it’s also one of many suggestions in the novel that correspondences are being drawn between the fictional Serge Carrefax and the historical Sergei Pankeyev, eternally famous for his constipation, his weird compulsions and his sister’s suicide, as written up in Freud’s case history ‘The Wolf Man’. In Freud’s view, the Wolf Man’s story was easily resolved, a classic allegory of Oedipal trauma; but for later critics (Abraham and Torok, Deleuze and Guattari), the case dramatises the inadequacy of the Freudian attitude, drawing its stiff little moral while around it all manner of other stuff goes on. The novel accordingly never quite makes clear the source of Sophie’s trouble: it’s veiled, confused, conflicted. As such questions so often are in life.

‘One of the real structural understandings of great literature,’ Tom McCarthy told the Believer in 2008, ‘is that it’s an event … this seismic set of ripples that goes on through time, backward and forward.’ And so, in place of interpretation, the novel chooses instead to echo, repeat, re-enact its founding elements in changing configurations – through bowels and spa towns, trenches and tunnels, crypts and cryptograms, silken sacs and veils. The internal organs of a human body might be ‘animals – reptiles, molluscs’; an observation balloon is ‘like a floating intestine’. Insects, aeroplanes, electronics buzz and hover. Wires ‘rasp’ against other wires. Ideas travel via lewd puns, slips, metaphors, mishearings, following the method laid out by Freud, and also Joyce – and, perhaps, a half-hidden, half-flagrant, third.

On her agitated night-walks, Sophie says she’s searching for ‘the Balkan beetle’ – which seems to be an actual insect, though it’s also, no doubt, a prefiguration of the coming war, and possibly an Earwicker insect-incest hint. But there’s also another association, bundled in, as it were, for free: ‘Balkan beetle’ is a rude name Tintin’s friend Captain Haddock uses for the ‘Bordurian’ spy in The Calculus Affair, much discussed in Tintin and the Secret of Literature (2006), McCarthy’s second book and, so far, his only work of non-fiction. The shades of Tintin, Haddock and Professor Calculus can be glimpsed all over Serge’s adventures, as jokes, motifs, ‘mere’ ciphers, possible keys; and their presence gets stronger as the novel comes to a bizarre conclusion – involving a scarab – in an ancient Egyptian burial chamber. Cigars of the Pharaoh, Hergé called his boy reporter’s Egyptian adventure. We know what Freud had to say about cigars.

T his is McCarthy’s third novel, his fourth book when you include the Tintin one, and part of an ambitious self-managed campaign that also includes propaganda, film (he wrote the story, adapted from Borges, told in Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take), and conceptual artworks, the latter largely from his position as general secretary of the International Necronautical Society, a ‘semi-fictitious’ organisation founded in 1999 by himself. In person he cuts a strange figure, cuddly-English on the outside – born 1969 in London; Dulwich College and Oxford; nice shirts and tweedy jackets – but on the inside a roiling maelstrom of the darkest avant-gardism, both of the old-skool European variety (the Futurists are often mentioned, and Robbe-Grillet, and Bataille, and Blanchot), and more recent, less canonical movements: Neue Slowenische Kunst, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, the many activities and avatars of Stewart Home.

From the beginning, McCarthy’s work has been clever, confident, emphatic, poised. The INS, for example, launched with an advert on the front page of the Times, just as Marinetti’s manifesto ran in Le Figaro 90 years earlier:

We, the First Committee of the International Necronautical Society, declare the following:

1. That death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter and, eventually, colonise.

2. That there is no beauty without death, its immanence. We shall sing death’s beauty – that is, beauty.

3. That we shall take it upon us, as our task, to bring death out into the world. We will chart all its forms and media: in literature and art, where it is most apparent; also in science and culture, where it lurks submerged but no less potent for the obfuscation. We shall attempt to tap into its frequencies – by radio, the internet and all sites where its processes and avatars are active … Death moves in our apartments, through our television screens, the wires and plumbing in our walls; our dreams. Our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death. We are all necronauts, always, already.

The confidence, and much of the vision, carries through to the novels. In the first, Remainder (2005), an unnamed young man has won a massive financial ‘settlement’ for an unspecified head injury; thereafter, he dedicates his life and wealth to ‘re-enacting’ a few moments, over and over, ‘to become fluent, natural, to cut out the detour that sweeps us around what’s fundamental to events’. The second, Men in Space (2007), is less driven, more fragmented, and set in Prague in the early 1990s. It, too, features a widening ripple of repetition as various lost and floating figures involve themselves with a stolen Byzantine icon, an image of a nameless saint apparently not – as is usual – ascending to heaven, but falling down. Both disdain the metaphysics of the so-called ‘literary’ novel, with its striving for psychological depth and other such mystifications: ‘retrograde’, ‘kitsch’, ‘nostalgic’, ‘middlebrow’ are some of the words McCarthy uses, and he likes letting you know that he values Amis, McEwan etc so little that he’s never bothered to read any of their books. Usually, he’s cool about this, but sometimes he sounds furious: ‘Liberals. Liberal humanists. That would be the enemy, in all positions … [The illusion that] there is a self who exists prior to anything who goes around emoting, experiencing and developing. This is what I hate.’

McCarthy finished Remainder in 2001, but it languished unpublished until Metronome, a small art press based in Paris, picked it up four years later; the LRB became an early and enthusiastic adopter.[*] The book gathered a buzz, went to America, won a prize from the Believer, then in 2008 Zadie Smith wrote about it in the New York Review of Books, in tandem with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Smith immediately got the point of the McCarthy project, its vehemence, its attack on the plushy poshlust of what she called ‘lyrical realism’. Although, as she admitted, ‘I have written in this tradition myself, and cautiously hope for its survival,’ she welcomed McCarthy’s ‘brutal excision of psychology’, seeing in it the beginnings of a new tradition she called ‘constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past ten years’. Shortly after that, Cape announced that it had acquired McCarthy’s next novel. And they’ve done it proud, with a Factory Records-style see-through acetate overlay and a gushy comparison to ‘Bolaño, Beckett and Pynchon’, which although critically a nonsense, certainly helps the book stand out.

C is organised to look a bit like a realist Bildungsroman, the life and impressions of one young man: he even gets born with a caul on him, as David Copperfield did. Serge, however, attracts no sympathy or empathy or whatever from his creator: he’s a convergence, or rather an area of concentration, where ideas, images, words, preoccupations gather and regroup. The book is split into four main sections: the Versoie childhood idyll; Serge’s wartime adventures, flying as an observer over enemy lines; postwar lost-generation London, an apathetic assemblage of sex and drugs and the paranormal, culminating (how else?) in an ecstatic car crash; and then Alexandria, ‘the great hub of the world’, laying the foundations of ‘the (still largely prospective) Empire Wireless Chain’, an imperial broadcasting organisation with obvious similarities to the BBC. The novel thus spans the years 1898-1922, the emergent years of global electronic communication, and – not coincidentally – of Modernism in literature and art.

From early on, the author drops lots of hints as to how he’d like his novel to be read. As a boy, with his tutor, unable to do nice perspective drawings of canals, ‘Serge just can’t do it: his perceptual apparatuses refuse point-blank to be twisted into the requisite configuration. He sees things flat; he paints things flat. Objects, figures, landscapes: flat.’ As a student of aeronautical engineering: ‘Oh, I don’t think of it as mathematics … I just see space: surfaces and lines.’ Through Serge’s eyes, the Royal Flying Corps is basically a death cult and all the more glorious for it, with the height, the explosions, the machinery, the proximity of death: ‘I liked it a lot,’ he says, after his first trip airborne. ‘It was just right … just how things should be.’ From the air, he can see the world as ideally flat, map-like,

a mandala of small roads and pathways, at least half of them unusable, criss-crossing and looping over open ground; then rows of empty trenches – last month’s, or last year’s, the year before’s; more open ground; more tracks … a mesh of interlocking trenches … The pockmarked village, road and woods.

It’s in the war, in short, that Serge finds himself, his vocation, as a necronaut, surfing death, reading Hölderlin, popping heroin, wearing a pair of women’s silk stockings over his face: a Modernist who is also ancient, a beautiful being who is also absurd, a creature of technology who also worships at the oldest shrines. ‘Serge feels an almost sacred tingling, as though he himself had become godlike, elevated by machinery and signal code to a higher post within the overall structure of things.’ Euphoric, exalted, off his face, he doesn’t think he’s killing people but ‘quickening … bringing to life’; he dreams of ‘the idea that his flesh could melt and fuse with the machine parts’, ‘like the Eiffel Tower, a pylon animating the whole world’. This is terrific, and there’s lots more where this comes from, abstract and cerebral and horrible and ridiculously romantic. One of the many marvellous things about such passages is the way they link images usually explored only visually, or in philosophy or poetry, to recognisably narrative situations and emotions. If this is a manifesto for the anti-lyrical-realist antinovel, bring it on.

As will, I think, be obvious, I had a whale of a time with this book, propped on my laptop, Wikipedia open in one window and in another, the OED. It was like being a guest at the dream-party of an extremely well-read host: things read a long time ago and more or less forgotten, things never read that I always meant to, things I certainly will read now, having seen how McCarthy can make them work. He sometimes talks about his job as a writer as being like that of a DJ or curator, plugging one set of material into another: the analogy is a good one, so long as it doesn’t suggest the work is unwriterly, because it’s not. Images, ideas, morphemes are precisely linked and weighted, bringing about their burst of meaning sometimes immediately (the midsummer masque tells the story, we’re told, of the ‘rapture’ of Persephone, and as for the enchanting portmanteau of ‘Versoie’ …), sometimes much later, sometimes lingering on the boundary between sleeping and waking, sense and nonsense (Widsun? ‘West Masedown and New Eliry’? Carrefax? I’d be able to see it clearly if only I could get the logo for that French supermarket out of the way).

There are also deeper, stranger resonances, largely unconscious, beyond capture and so, by definition, difficult to explain; perhaps I can edge towards what I mean by analogy. In 2004, the philosopher Simon Critchley – who has appeared on the INS platform – added a preface to the second edition of his book Very Little … Almost Nothing (1997), a study of Blanchot, Beckett and Wallace Stevens:

Events circled around my father’s illness with lung cancer which resulted in his death a couple of days after Christmas 1994 … Very Little … Almost Nothing is thus an act of mourning. It is dedicated to my father, and my memory of his death’s head is the perhaps ultimately senseless source of the book’s attempted sense-making.

When I first read this, I was divided between disappointment (oh-oh, there goes another one, off on our great generational collapse into trite self-centred confessional) and excitement (how brave of Critchley to risk making the link explicit, suggesting some of the many richer ways there are to mourn through writing than the obvious and compromised memoir). Literature as event, in McCarthy’s parlance, ripples outwards, allowing mourning to maintain its mystery even as it becomes a social, shared experience. And so the furies become the kindly ones; here is the beginning and the end of tragic art.

And now, with McCarthy’s nomination to this year’s Man Booker longlist, there comes another round of the ancient spectacle. How can the cosy circle open up to absorb him, given how rude he has been about its household gods? ‘The deliberately flattened, almost mechanical characters … make for joyless reading’; ‘terrible longueurs’; ‘I cannot even half-heartedly recommend a book that on occasions left me close to tears of boredom’ (to mash together Radio 4’s Saturday Review programme with the Sunday Times). Also on Saturday Review, though, Paul Morley said something more interesting: that C in his view was too disappointingly literary, ‘much closer to the idea that this would be the book that’s nominated for the Booker’, and there are ways in which Morley is sort of right. Particularly as to the novel’s gentleman-adventurer social setting and manifest content: weirdly and amusingly, the story of the first part in particular is very similar to that told by A.S. Byatt in last year’s Booker-shortlisted The Children’s Book. C is unavoidably a novel of empire, just as Remainder was, for all its apparent social indirection. In her New York Review piece, Zadie Smith found a ‘subconscious trace’ of ‘faint racial antipathy’ in it, the way it positioned Naz, the narrator’s Asian aide-de-camp, and the ‘dead black man’ who features centrally in the plot: ‘a typically British class/race anxiety’, she calls it. ‘The frustrated sense of having come to the authenticity party exactly a century late!’

Imagine Remainder as Hergé might have drawn it: CRASH! young man gets hit on head by lump sum; !?!?!?!? after scant evening of pub discussion, decides to spend it neither on debauchery nor the needy; EUREKA! spends it instead on quixotic attempt to recreate how he felt when he first read Perec as a teenager, in Paris, on his gap year. As well as other things, Remainder works as an allegory of a certain flâneurish model of artistic production, in which a gentleman’s independence of income and education loom pretty big. That, we might say, is Remainder’s material remainder; and it is that of C also, though C moves the argument on a little, investigating the conditions, as it were, of its own existence: family inheritance, war, imperialism, technology; spreading information, spreading death. It’s this core of historical and philosophical seriousness that separates McCarthy’s work completely from the current fashion for baroque narratological cleverness in fiction, like the films of Charlie Kaufman and Christopher Nolan, the novels of David Mitchell, the television of Steven Moffat and his teams on Sherlock and Doctor Who. There are differences between cleverness and intellect. McCarthy has many things he’s trying to do in his novels, none of which have much to do with pleasing producers or publishers or even an audience, unless by pleasing one means leaving purged.

Like McCarthy, I used to get exasperated by the self-impoverished narrowness of mainstream British so-called ‘literary’ literature, its obsession with Amises and McEwans, its deliberate ignorance of so much else; after a while, I realised this was not a literary but a cultic matter, to do with fertility rites and myths of social renewal. I remember that in the early 1980s on Channel 4 there was a chaotic late-night chat show, which my memory frames as having on it Vi Subversa from the Poison Girls, crowning Boy George as the young god of the year just out. As she did so, she warned him that the promise of regeneration embodied by his figure could be made good only with his sacrifice. As with hindsight, it duly was, as for Jesus and Osiris and Gazza and Martin Amis.

The ultimate aim of the necronaut, the INS manifesto says, is to construct ‘a craft that will convey us into death in such a way that we may, if not live, then at least persist’, with one example of such a craft being ‘the rehabilitation of sacrifice as an accepted social ritual’. From this perspective, it’s not important whether or not McCarthy’s novel is reviewed well or badly, allowed to win the Booker or any other gong. Whatever happens to this novel or to this writer, a chain of events has been set in motion. Nothing and no one is going to stop it going on and on.

[*] Remainder was reviewed by Daniel Soar in the LRB of 9 March 2006.