By Tom McCarthy
Knopf, $25.95, 320 pages
Virtually every review of Tom McCarthy's new novel "C" you come across will include a rehearsal of the author's avant-garde chops. About how his 2007 novel "Remainder" languished without a publisher for seven years before it was secreted into print by a Parisian art-book house. About how said novel shocked new life into the apparently dead, late-modernist tradition of the anti-novel, with Alain Robbe-Grillet's name the most prominently mentioned as a precedent, to the delight of a fabulously receptive audience of readers. About how McCarthy sat at the high table of some art-worldly group called the International Necronautical Society, which gleefully issued philosophically challenging manifestoes in favor of literary inauthenticity and, like an old Soviet council, cut the cords with group members who failed to adhere to its anti-commercial publishing creed, a diktat that McCarthy himself soon would violate.
The last thing you might expect, given McCarthy's CV, is "C," a historical novel that follows the adventures of Serge Carrefax from his birth in 1898 on a rambling English estate to his death of the coast of Egypt in 1922. It is a coming-of-age tale that sites its protagonist as an eyewitness to the period's multiple traumas, from the front lines of World War I to the louche salons of postwar London to decaying, restive Alexandria. Those years - 1898 and 1922 - are key, bookend dates in a certain story of how the nineteenth-century world came to a crashing halt and the modern world began: Serge's birth corresponds to Marconi's triumphs in wireless communications - the first time the world was wired - and the year of his death marks the appearance of both "Ulysses" and "The Waste Land," the high-water moment of modernist literature.
But "C" is a historical novel in deconstructionist drag, a loose shell of a story that gives McCarthy the full range to roam around the debris of the early twentieth century. Like the deliriously errant Karl in Kafka's "Amerika," or the globally hop-scotching comic-strip hero Tintin, about whom McCarthy once wrote a funny book of criticism, Carrefax finds himself thrust into a series of loosely connected scenes drawn from a roster of modernist mythmakers. Here he is dispatched to a "Magic Mountain"-like sanatorium in an Eastern European country; there he is crumpled like an insect under the carapace of a glamorously wrecked automobile a la Futurist Franco Marinetti. As Carrefax is dispatched into World War I action as a communications expert flying high over German trenches, McCarthy describes the view of the smoldering landscape he sees below as a flat Cubist map of codes and vectors, less Owen Barfield than Gertrude Stein.
The self-consciousness of McCarthy's conceit could prove witheringly academic, but "C" animates a host of big themes - sex, drugs, death, technology, and above all communication - and winds them tightly around each other. The novel begins at the labyrinthine Versoie estate, where Carrefax's father runs a school for the deaf while his mother oversees the family business in silk making. His father has a more than casual interest in the then new wireless technology that Marconi has recently advanced, and at the moment of Serge's birth, coils of copper wire are being installed throughout the property, co-mingling like a serpent with the "curling poison berries on the trellis." Told by the attending physician that Serge has been born under unusual circumstances ("He had a caul... A veil around his head: a kind of web. It's meant to bring good luck"), Carrefax senior boasts hopefully of the coming "web around the world" of long-distance communication - disembodied voices beaming through the ether, emanating from points unknown. Serge follows his father in his fascination for the vast emptiness of the wireless and its mesmerizing series of codes, staying up late in the evening to listen in on the dots and dashes through the static.
The traumatic event that motors "C" is the suicide of Serge's sister Sophie, who is interred in a family crypt that Carrefax senior considers rigging with equipment to facilitate communication from the other side of death. "Both death and she are elsewhere; like a signal, dispersed," Serge reflects as her silk-draped coffin disappears from sight and a strangely pleasant buzzing sensation ripples through his recepticle-like body for the first time. The phantasmal quality of technology is the theme running through Serge's travels subsequent to Sophie's literal encryptment - it's a fetish he can never really get to the bottom of (there is no bottom to a fetish, after all), but one that he never relinquishes attempting to unravel, even if he's only semi-conscious of his quest's motivating force. A book that's steeped in avant-garde literature and criticism from Pynchon to BarthesV meets and larded with plays on words, "C" spirals around its character's journey like a riddle by the Sphinx. It's almost as if it's been CCd from the Greeks to the present.
In pre-e-mail days, CC stood for the making of carbon copies, sheets that bore the imprint of a typed "original" document. Like that obsolete form of copying, McCarthy's parroting of the avant-garde anti-novel bears the traces of its literary sources but fundamentally transforms them into a fascinatingly original work of fiction. Following its own maddening logic, it stages a marvelously sophisticated encounter with modernism's own dead voices. When Zadie Smith praised McCarthy's "Remainder" in a widely read 2007 essay in the New York Review of Books, she wondered what effect a contract with a commercial publisher might have on his future writing. Three years later, the answer is here, and the news is even better than anyone might have imagined.
Eric Banks is a writer and former editor of Bookforum.